By Annie Nova
After working as a baker for 12 years at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City, Hector Solis, 45, was told by his boss one morning that he had 10 days to produce his legal work papers or he would be fired.
More than 30 other employees were given the same ultimatum in March, after the Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation into the bakery. Most of the workers had no papers, and are now scrambling to find another job.
“It made me feel so sad and angry,” said Solis, who moved to New York from Mexico in 1995 to escape poverty. “Most of my co-workers have been there 13, 14, 17 years. We have to start from the beginning now.”
The drama unfolding at Tom Cat Bakery made headlines because the undocumented workers at the 30-year-old establishment fought their termination and possible deportation by organizing and protesting. But President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies are threatening New York City’s entire food industry.
President Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to broaden their focus for deportation from undocumented immigrants who’ve committed crimes to all individuals who are in the country illegally. Restaurants will become a primary target, advocates say, since it is well known that many kitchens are populated with undocumented immigrants.
Daniel Gross, the executive director of the labor rights group Brandworkers, said undocumented immigrants play a major role in every stage of the food market.
“From the farm, to the manufacturing facilities, to the distribution, to the grocery stores, to the restaurants, it’s going to become increasingly clear in the coming months that we’re not going to be able to have a food system,” Gross said. “This immigration policy is so senseless, so heartless, and it makes absolutely no economic sense.”
More than 30 percent of New York City’s cooks are undocumented immigrants and 54 percent of the city’s dishwashers are undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Undocumented immigrants take these jobs because many restaurant employers don’t ask prospective employees if they are here legally and the work often guarantees them more than 40 hours of work a week. In turn, many restaurant owners depend on undocumented immigrants for dishwashing, delivering, line cooking and busing because they say that Americans usually only apply to be waiters or chefs, jobs offer more pay and prestige.
“Americans have no interest in the kitchen,” said Robert Pascal, owner of Le Charlot, a French restaurant on the Upper East Side.
“Dishwashers are all illegal,” said Annstius Theodorou, manager of Patsy Pizzeria in Midtown. “Ten hours of your hands under water. Who’s going to do it if you’re legal?”Read more
In interviews with undocumented workers in restaurants across New York City, many of them said they make $5 or $6 an hour. One man, who has been a deliveryman at Flor de Mayo, a Spanish restaurant on the Upper West Side, for 15 years, said he’s never earned more than $6 an hour.
“These are often people who work insane amounts of hours for insanely low amounts of money,” said Rodriguez. “They’re holding the hospitality industry together.”
Many restaurant owners said that the city’s high rents—the average Manhattan restaurant costs around $200,000 a month – leave them with a small profit margin. If they had to hire Americans, they’d be forced to pay their employees a minimum of $35,000 a year. Most undocumented immigrants who work in restaurants, on the other hand, are paid an average of $14,560 a year.
Reynaldo, an undocumented immigrant, said he earns $7.50 an hour cooking, cleaning and delivering food for Trend Diner on the Upper East Side.He earns about $1,000 a month—barely enough to support his wife and two young daughters. He has no doubts that he’s underpaid, but he doesn’t look for another job, he said, because the pay is the same everywhere for undocumented immigrants.
“I have no future,” Reynaldo said.
Solis’s wage was much higher than the average pay for undocumented restaurant workers. After a dozen years of professional baking, Solis got so good and fast at churning out bread that his boss paid him $17 an hour. He said he’ll never earn that wage again. “To be a baker was a career for me,” Solis said.
On a bright Saturday morning in April, Tom Cat Bakery workers stood beside politicians and activists outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, chanting, “No borders, no walls, immigrants they feed us all!”
April 20 was Solis’s final day at Tom Cat Bakery. He and his undocumented co-workers left work early that day, unable to get through the day knowing it was their last. “I’m going to miss the place,” Solis said, adding that he’s begun to search for another job. His voice was heavy and interrupted with his deep sighs.
He wonders who will fill all those empty positions at the bakery. In the summer, the massive ovens bring temperatures to over 120 degrees.
“It gets really, really hot,” Solis said. “Who’s going to do the job?”