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A restaurant kitchen with a worker behind the line, covered by shelves of plates and dinnerware
Indoor dining service in Washington has been banned until at least January 11.

How Seattle’s Dining Shutdown Has Impacted Undocumented Restaurant Workers

“I wish the governor would reopen businesses or provide more help and funds”

As Gov. Jay Inslee extends restrictions on indoor dining until at least January 11, restaurants have been forced to again pause service or transition their businesses to takeout only during the pandemic. The restrictions mean many restaurants will close either temporarily or permanently, and the Washington Hospitality Association estimates 100,000 restaurant and bar jobs are in jeopardy. Recently, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a new round of funding aimed at helping restaurants, directing $5 million to small businesses and workers in the hospitality industry. But one group integral to kitchens across the city should not be forgotten: undocumented restaurant workers.

There are an estimated 240,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington, who collectively paid $678.7 million in federal taxes and $367.9 million in state and local taxes in 2018, but do not qualify for unemployment insurance because of their immigration status. The city has provided some relief for them with the Seattle COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund for Immigrants, which allocated more than $7.9 million in cash assistance to those who were ineligible to receive the federal $1,200 stimulus payment and state unemployment benefits that expired. Another federal stimulus package has just been signed: this time, it includes payments for families in which one of the parents is not a citizen, although the stimulus checks will be smaller, just $600 versus the $1,200 in the previous round.

The city’s immigrant program allocated anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 in payments to 3,703 individuals and families. Inslee launched a similar program providing the same payment amounts statewide via an online application that closed December 6. As part of Inslee’s new 2021 equity plan, $10 million more will be allocated in the proposed state budget to maintain the program. This still falls short of the $100 million a coalition of immigrant advocates pushed for back in August, when the plan was first announced.

Community organizations have stepped in to assist undocumented restaurant workers, like the Plate Fund, which ran out of $500 direct one-time payments by the time summer arrived. The program received an overwhelming number of candidates that applied during the initial shutdown, when neither the city nor state had programs developed for undocumented workers, and distributed around $7.9 million total to more than 15,000 restaurant staff in King County (both documented and not). El Centro de la Raza also started a fund to provide food and rent assistance to undocumented workers in need.

Below, three undocumented restaurant workers, who asked to remain anonymous for their safety, share their experiences navigating the city’s constantly changing restaurant restrictions and their limited access to aid.

Worker No. 1: Works as a dishwasher/prep cook at two fine dining restaurants, and has recently taken on another job as well. Originally from Mexico, the 39-year-old has been laid off from one of their jobs due to indoor dining restrictions and had their hours reduced from the other, so the worker now relies on a part-time job at a fast food restaurant to make ends meet.

“The only assistance I have received is a $1,000 advance from one of my jobs. They took 10 percent out of each paycheck for a month following in order to pay it off, but it helped. I was still forced two months into the pandemic to get another job. We don’t get hazard pay. [The fast food restaurant is] barely going to give me a raise, a 30-cent raise, I think. Luckily, I did have a little bit of money saved, but not a lot. I also had to send money to my parents [in Mexico] because they were sick. I have been able to pay rent, my light bill, but not my car payment or car insurance. All the money I make at goes toward rent. Otherwise, I cook the cheapest food possible and don’t spend money on anything else.

“I have heard of programs [for undocumented workers], but I stopped filling them out because I never heard back. I applied to the Plate Fund, but I didn’t receive anything. I’m not sure of where to apply, either. I don’t know anyone that has received money. Plus, a $1,000 payment once is not enough. We are all working and they are taking taxes out of every check. I know it’s not our right to receive help weekly, but during the pandemic, the government should help us. It would be nice to have money for rent or food expenses.

“I have only been able to pay rent because I split it with another person. It would be better if the government helps pay our rent instead of just halting evictions so that the bills don’t just grow. We might not be from here, but we are here to work. We are here to collaborate and give back to the country. We are not here to cause trouble. We are not here to take anyone else’s job.”

Worker No. 2: Dishwasher/prep cook at two downtown restaurants. The 26-year-old — from Honduras originally — was laid off at one restaurant due to recent indoor dining restrictions, and another restaurant cut down hours.

“When the pandemic first started, one of my jobs gave us something like a bonus, about $2,000, when we reopened after two months being closed. My other job provided no assistance. I have never applied for any government assistance programs either. I have heard of them, but I haven’t applied because they are a little complicated for me. A lot of applications. I haven’t been able to go to food banks either because none are near me — they require a car. I just dig into my savings to make ends meet.

“It’s been hard to find help during the pandemic. Neither of my employers have told me about any programs to help. I would be satisfied with $1,000 from the governor’s program. I’m grateful for anything, but $1,000 goes into food and rent and it’s like we never had it. I have had to look for other jobs because I need hours, but I don’t find any. I want to work, but when it comes to getting sick, I would rather stay home to prevent it if I could. We should be treated just like everyone else. We pay taxes like everyone else.”

Worker No. 3: A line cook in two Italian restaurants, both of which have ceased operations during the new restrictions. Prior to the pandemic, this person, 25 — originally from Guatemala — worked full time for both, but recently only returned full time at one.

“One of my employers informed me of the Plate Fund, which I ultimately applied to and got $500, but I didn’t apply to any government programs. As of late, I have had to go to the food bank twice. I went to La Reina in Kent to get food and assistance. As far as rent, I have had to dig into my savings. From my point of view, I’m very thankful for any help, but perhaps they haven’t given us what we are supposed to receive. A thousand dollars could hold me off for a month or so without digging into savings, but that’s not very long. But, I will take what I can get.

“This pandemic has complicated a lot for undocumented people because it has left us without jobs and we don’t receive unemployment benefits. It has prevented us from moving forward with our lives. Lately, I wait outside of Home Depot trying to get a job doing yard work or landscaping for the day to make some money. I wish the governor would reopen businesses or provide more help and funds for people who are undocumented to apply to.

“It’s disrespectful for people to think we shouldn’t receive the same benefits for the same work. I understand that we are not from here, but it’s ignorant to think that we don’t deserve something for what we do. We pay our taxes too.”