How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Hurting Street Vendors (Op-Ed)

Source: The Street Vendor Project

BY: Mohamed Attia, Director of The Street Vendor Project, an organization with more than 1,800 active vendor members who are working together to create a vendors’ movement for permanent change. 

At every corner on the streets of NYC you will come across a taco truck, a Halal food cart or a freshly sliced mango cart, and each time you will be served by someone with a different origin that you may not even guess. This is the essence of NYC as much as it’s the essence of everyday vendors.

Street vendors represent the diversity of our neighborhoods and communities. Single mothers selling tamales in Latin American neighborhoods, military veterans selling souvenirs in touristic areas, and immigrant families running food carts and trucks all around the city, cooking and selling the best cuisines to everyday customers and passersby.

These hard workers strive to make their living day by day, through the cold and snow when many New Yorkers are tucked under their blankets, or in the hot months in summer when we struggle to get out of an air-conditioned room. They stay up all night or wake up at the crack of dawn to provide us with a tasty, affordable, and ready-to-go meal or convenient merchandise whenever we need it.

Each of these meals holds a story of where it came from by whom it’s made by, just like every part of New York. That’s what makes this whole experience special.

For centuries, street vendors in NYC have been serving New Yorkers, creating jobs and business opportunities, and contributing to the local economy, yet they haven’t received the support they deserve from the government.

Street vendors today operate under an unjust system that was created decades ago, when the city placed a cap on the number of food vending permits in 1983 and a cap on the number of general merchandise licenses in 1979, leaving new vendors unable to control their own businesses.

The current system has allowed an underground market for food vendor permits to flourish, where most vendors pay up to $25,000 every two years to permit-holders, or, if they cannot afford the price, to work without the proper license or permit and risk being arrested and receiving $1,000 fines.

Seeing the diminished foot-traffic of our once vibrant city, haven’t you asked yourself how these vendors are surviving? And how these women and men, who have families to provide for, are buying food and other essentials? They don’t have paychecks to guarantee their survival or at the very least, give them peace of mind for the weeks ahead, while waiting, as we all do, for this pandemic to end.

So, your guess is right, approximately 90% of street vendors have stopped working completely, while the other 10% are struggling to make ends meet.

As a result of the rigged vending system that New York City has not reformed despite having numerous opportunities to do so, the current pandemic has exacerbated the daily struggle of many vendors. Most street vendors can’t afford to put food on their tables after a few days of not working because they don’t have enough savings or any safety net to rely on.

There might be some efforts by the government to help small businesses during this crisis, but unfortunately these efforts leave out New York City’s smallest businesses- street vendors.

The government- sponsored relief programs leave out informal businesses such as street vendors due to rigorous technological and documentation requirements. But perhaps the biggest barrier is the lack of a social security number. A significant number of vendors are undocumented, which means they will not even qualify for unemployment benefits, despite collecting and paying sales tax like any other business.

Does being undocumented make you unqualified to earn an honest living or to receive the help you deserve like anyone else? That’s a question we should ask ourselves and our government.

Immigrants are more than their labor, and deserve equal respect, relief, and recognition not just for their economic contributions, but also for their very existence as human beings who live in the City of New York.

The short-term solution needed for the current financial hardship that street vendors are facing is an immediate response from the city by creating programs that recognize street vendors as sole proprietors of their businesses, regardless of their immigration status.

And the long-term solution for the vending dilemma is fixing the unfair system, lifting the caps on permits and licenses, and enabling vendors to legally operate viable businesses.

This is a part of the injustice that many immigrant workers face, especially food workers, not only in New York City, but across the nation.

What’s happening today will be written tomorrow in history. History will remember that millions of immigrants who had been feeding America, couldn’t feed themselves.

Mohamed Attia, The Street Vendor Project‘s Director, immigrated to the US from Alexandria, Egypt in 2008. He worked as a vendor for nearly ten years selling hot dogs, halal chicken and rice, and smoothies. He became a member of the Street Vendor Project in 2012, was elected to the Leadership Board, and served on the board until 2018, when he joined SVP’s staff. He lives in Bensonhurst with his wife.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.