Long Island is a land that is, in many ways, both rich and poor in restaurants. Whether you want Indian or Italian, Chinese or continental cuisine, there have always been more options than you can count.
When restaurants closed their seating areas to comply with coronavirus restrictions, although some continued with or added delivery and curbside pickup, it caused more than places to eat to disappear. An industry nearly vanished in an instant. Thousands of jobs disappeared as if a switch had been turned off and a massive industry contracted, with some workers falling through the cracks in the safety net.
“It’s hard to try and define who people are without a safety net right now,” says Paule Pachter, CEO of Long Island Cares, one of two regional food banks along with Island Harvest. “There are people in the restaurant industry who have been laid off. People in the hospitality industry are being laid off.”
There were 119,400 jobs in leisure and hospitality and 96,200 in food services and drinking places in March on Long Island before the economy closed or collapsed, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Today, though, some of the people who fed the Island are facing their own financial struggles as an already vulnerable industry takes a hit.
Jeffrey Reynolds, CEO of Family and Children’s Association (FCA), a large nonprofit social services organization based in Mineola, says many workers who helped feed the region have found themselves in financial distress with little savings.
“Some of them are not able to do delivery. They were washing dishes or busboys. You saw their bikes locked up outside. Those jobs were eliminated,” Reynolds says. “They don’t necessarily have a license or a car.”
While the federal government has put in place programs and expanded and extended unemployment, some workers were off the books, undocumented, or simply afraid that claiming benefits to which they’re entitled could lead to problems.
“They might think that using services available to them will cause a problem in the process of getting the residency or citizenship,” says Mayra Correa, a family support supervisor at FCA, noting that all immigrants have the right to many services.
The hospitality industry also has been impacted, with the Long Island Marriott closing temporarily, leaving many workers with little savings and hardly any safety net.
“We’re seeing a lot of independent contractors who have no work right now. Construction industry, truckers,” Pachter adds. “They’re self-employed. If you’re running a small business and trying to make ends meet, what are you supposed to do?”
Pachter, for instance, was approached in a parking lot by a trucker looking for work, as a kind of economic epidemic compounded the trucker’s medical one. LI’s and the nation’s growing gig economy, where people go from assignment to assignment, went from promising freedom to bigger problems.
Long Island Cares’ satellites that distribute food have seen a 64 percent increase in people seeking food, including a 30 percent rise in the number using their services for the first time. About 7,400 people in March sought food, including 2,300 who had never turned to them before.
Homeless Long Islanders, often not visible from the streets, in parks, often are out of reach of the system, living in the woods. Long Island Cares delivers food to 400 homeless people a month, but Pachter believes the number is down amid this crisis.
“Many people are scared to death, so they are reaching out to family and social services,” he says. “There are still a lot of people there.”
Some restaurants and businesses may not reopen or may reopen with fewer employees, so some jobs will remain lost.
“I don’t see all of these jobs coming back to life overnight,” Reynolds says. “I would guess that a fair amount of restaurants, stores and businesses that closed will probably stay closed.”
Even when businesses reopen, jobs may not reopen to the same people as the economy rebounds.
“You may see folks who work in these jobs squeezed out by people who worked in retail at stores that didn’t open again,” Reynolds says.
For more coronavirus coverage, visit longislandpress.com/coronavirus