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Expedited Unemployment Processing Doesn’t Help Undocumented Food-Service Workers in Massachusetts

The state is streamlining claims for workers impacted by the outbreak of novel coronavirus — but that provides no relief to workers who cannot legally access benefits

Stock photograph of restaurant kitchen staff in white jackets with faces hidden behind a metal prep counter. ESB Professional/Shutterstock

As states and municipalities across the country continue to impose mandatory shutdowns on bars and restaurants in an effort to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, the livelihoods of food-service workers continue to disappear.

Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state would be expediting unemployment insurance claims for workers who lost their jobs due to the impact of the pandemic. That measure certainly helps food-service workers who qualify for unemployment insurance benefits — but it does nothing to mitigate the economic anxieties of undocumented food-service workers.

“Undocumented workers are going to be the ones left out of any sort of social safety net we have set up,” said Lily Huang, who is the co-director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a coalition of labor, faith, and student organizations that advocates for workers’ rights.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) requires non-U.S. citizens to prove that they are legally authorized to work in the United States. This is required by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986; the authorization is verified by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“When you file for unemployment benefits, you will be asked to provide your Alien Registration Number,” states a set of instructions for filing for unemployment as a non-U.S. citizen on Massachusetts’ website. “If you fail to provide this information, your benefits may be delayed or you may be disqualified from receiving benefits. You may also be asked to provide a copy of the papers that establish your authorization to work.”

Without providing that proof, it’s impossible for any worker — undocumented or otherwise — to collect unemployment insurance benefits.

“As I’m sure you know, even U.S. citizens often work under the table in hospitality businesses, especially smaller places,” said Marion Davis, the director of communications for MIRA, a Boston-based advocacy coalition that works with immigrants and refugees. “Many undocumented immigrants do that, which means they don’t exist on paper. There’s no way to get unemployment as a ghost.”

With the assistance of a translator, Eater spoke with two undocumented food-service workers about the impact novel coronavirus-related job loss is having on their lives. Each is a single mother of multiple children and works in the food-service industry in Greater Boston. Eater granted both women anonymity so that they could safely share their stories.

“I have two kids. I don’t have anything. I don’t have any money. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not sure how I’m going to pay the rent.”

She works as a prep cook, line cook, and dishwasher for 40 hours a week in a restaurant in Greater Boston, earning $1,200 to $1,300 every two weeks before taxes. (Yes, undocumented workers pay taxes. Billions and billions of dollars worth, in fact.) Without access to unemployment insurance benefits, her earnings drop to $0. The restaurant she works in has shuttered completely; there are no shifts to pick up, and she doesn’t have any money in reserve.

“I’ve talked with coworkers, and they told me they don’t think the restaurant owners will help us out or pay us anything now that we’ve lost our jobs. I do want to work, but I can’t because they closed the restaurant.”

With three mouths to feed and rent to pay, she’s beginning to feel desperate.

“I need to find help. Help to pay for my apartment, help to buy food for my children.”

The other undocumented worker Eater spoke with works in catering as a server for a barbecue restaurant. She takes home $450 each week, barely enough to pay rent and take care of her three children — one who lives with her in the Boston area and two who live in the country she immigrated from, and whom she supports from abroad.

She told Eater she feels frustrated that she cannot access unemployment insurance. And school closures mean that’s one more meal she has to figure out how to provide her child with every day. She’s unsure where to look or how to access the financial support she needs. She’s also afraid that the U.S. government might discover that she’s living here, undocumented.

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone because I don’t know who to call. Everything I’m hearing is that there’s no help for us because we don’t qualify for anything. And honestly, I don’t know what to do because of the fear of the papers.

“To be honest, I’ve just been locked here in one room with my son. We haven’t been able to go outside since Friday. We feel tired, being in one room without knowing what to do next. On the other hand, I’m being hopeful this will be over soon, and I am trying to remain positive.”

Advocates and attorneys who work with immigrant communities are currently scrambling to figure out how to help undocumented workers access relief money. (This list of assistance funds is helpful, as is this particular fund.) This kind of ad-hoc, patchwork financial assistance is critical for the millions of undocumented workers who are not protected by America’s social safety net. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that U.S. unemployment law works overtime to ensure undocumented workers are walled off from the economic relief they so badly need.

Eater has made repeated requests for comment to the state with regard to its plan to help undocumented workers obtain access to economic relief. At the time of publication, the state had not provided any such plan.

The economics of the shutdown aren’t good for any food-service workers, but they’re especially devastating for undocumented workers who cannot legally access unemployment insurance benefits.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Yamila Ruiz, who works for One Fair Wage as an advocate for living wages for restaurant workers. “This isn’t going to be a two-week or a three-week thing. Life will be altered drastically for much longer.”

Something urgently needs to be done to ease the economic anxiety of undocumented workers in this unprecedented moment.

How the Novel Coronavirus Is Impacting Restaurants in Greater Boston [EBOS]