These Are the Workers Who Kept New York Alive in Its Darkest Months
The city’s 2.5 million service workers were at the center of the pandemic as it ravaged New York. Some kept the city running, often at risk to their own lives. Others found themselves unemployed indefinitely in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
A haircut, breakfast on-the-go, a yoga class: You can pretty much get one anytime — if not anywhere — in New York. If the city doesn’t sleep, it’s because hundreds of thousands of service workers who cater to any conceivable need don’t either. They feed and comfort, entertain and inspire.
As the Bob Dylan song goes: “You gotta serve somebody.”
But it’s a different story during a pandemic.
When thousands of offices, hotels, stores, gyms and restaurants went dark and silent, New York City’s estimated 2.5 million service workers suddenly faced the unimaginable prospect of no income and no idea when — or if — they could return to work. Initial hopes that the city would reopen in a few weeks gave way to a crushing realization that an unprecedented shutdown would bring unprecedented losses.
The New York Times interviewed and photographed 130 of these workers. They kept the city going, from Riverdale to Staten Island and from Bensonhurst to Astoria. They were dog walkers and fitness trainers; cooks, cleaners and store clerks; and the army of people criss-crossing the city to deliver food and drink to those who spent the lockdown inside.
They were part of that delicate economic and social tapestry that connects us all.
According to the Independent Budget Office, New York City lost 889,000 jobs across all sectors in the first half of 2020 and only managed to regain 332,000 by year’s end. The hospitality and leisure sectors — dependent on packed bars, theaters, restaurants and hotels — took the biggest hit of all, losing a staggering 202,000 jobs.
The vaccine rollout and the lifting of restrictions have raised hopes for a rebound. A recent rise in cases has some experts concerned but they don’t expect the number of cases to reach levels seen during the first and second waves of the pandemic.
Some industries have bounced back — finance, tech and health — yet many more have a much tougher path forward; the leisure and hospitality industries are predicted to remain behind pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.
Service workers do the kinds of anonymous jobs that make the city run smoothly. They perform vital tasks like caring for the incapacitated or keeping public spaces clean. Within days of quarantine measures being put in place, they were deemed essential, though often with no increase in pay.
They also include under-the-radar creative communities that produce cutting-edge music and the artists and performers that give the city its cultural cachet.
Delivering food for Upper Manhattan restaurants has long been Gustavo Ajche’s night gig. By day he works in construction, a trade he has plied since emigrating as a teenager from Guatemala’s western highlands in 2004. His wife works as a nanny for a family in Manhattan, a job that became a live-in position when her employer had her accompany them to their second home in North Carolina from March through September last year.
Mr. Ajche and his wife do not have a second house, but they do have a second extended family to support back home in Guatemala.
“We made the sacrifice,” he said. “It was complicated, because my family was separated here, while in Guatemala the situation with the virus was uncertain and things were getting bad.”
As the enormousness of the economic calamity sank in, some people were able to pivot quickly: Fitness trainers held online group classes; a Peruvian restaurant opened at the height of the pandemic with a business model centered on takeout.
Ellen Christi — a jazz singer whose day job had been leading a team of servers at impeccably catered events — “stayed in bed for three weeks” when work vanished overnight, then invested in upgraded audio and computer equipment to begin recording and giving voice lessons from home.
But others, especially those deemed essential, had neither the luxury nor the choice of working from home, if they even had work at all.
In Brooklyn, a dry cleaner spent months with hardly any customers, his machines and boiler idle since no one was dressing up for work or weddings.
At a Staten Island group home for developmentally disabled adults, staff members put in as many as eight consecutive shifts, exhausting themselves as they helped their charges and assuaged their anxieties, napping when they could on couches.
Often, the bickering between the governor and the mayor, as well as uncertainty about the virus’s transmission, left many people confused and on edge, said Maurice Robinson, who works at the group home. “It was like you were in a boxing match, blindfolded,” he said. “You didn’t know who you were fighting and where it was coming from.”
While the city’s reopening has revived neighborhoods and venues, it has not lifted up everyone. James Parrott, an economist at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said that service workers in the city have only regained 40 percent of the jobs that were lost.
A survey conducted between December 2020 and February 2021 of 725 households in Astoria, Queens — chosen as an average neighborhood with a mix of working and middle-class New Yorkers— showed job loss at a higher rate than citywide, especially among Black women in the health care and hospitality industries. About 42 percent of those surveyed changed industry or careers, which Mr. Parrot said foreshadowed the future workplace, though it remains unclear what skills will be in demand.
“There have been substantial economic changes coupled with the demise of a number of businesses and a rejiggering of demand across sectors,” Mr. Parrott said. “There’s a greater need now for a labor market matching system to match workers with emerging opportunities.”
That rethinking, he said, also involves reconsidering our relation to work.
The same technologies that make our lives easier can take advantage of the lowest-paid workers, especially gig workers. A recent study of New Yorkers who work for food delivery apps showed that many of them often don’t make minimum wage because they often have to pay for equipment or are shortchanged on tips. The ranks of these “deliveristas” swelled to an estimated 50,000 people during the lockdown as people at home ordered food and avoided grocery stores.
After pressure from workers and advocates, the City Council is considering several bills to address their plight, including setting guidelines for pay and safety.
“There is such an infatuation with technology as new and somehow making possible great conveniences,” said Mr. Parrott, who supports the legislation. “These are companies people have idolized. But fundamentally it’s a business model that only works because it’s based on exploitation.”
Unable to predict — much less influence — the health and policy decisions that had closed the city, many service workers also turned to each other in mutual aid efforts to supply coworkers and friends with food.
For many, it was a reminder that community comes with a responsibility to share whatever time, talent or modest treasure they had to support their friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Before the pandemic, Mohini Karmacharya, who moved to New York from Nepal in 1999, had worked as a nanny for a family in Manhattan. When she lost that job during the lockdown, she sought help at an organization helping fellow Nepalese immigrants. She, in turn, chipped in to help deliver food and cleaning supplies.
“We were in a lot of fear, hearing the ambulance sirens every single day we were cooped up inside,” she said. “I found community setting up food distribution. Slowly, we began to build confidence that maybe we can survive this, which I didn’t believe before. But here we are.”
Those mutual aid efforts were especially necessary for workers who are undocumented immigrants, whose immigration status barred them from receiving government aid, like unemployment benefits. After months of intense testimony and demonstrations, the state established an excluded workers fund that could give some of them up to $15,000 each. The first payments should arrive next month.
The city has helped some businesses stay open with grants, though that help does not always trickle down to employees, let alone the performers, technicians and staff at the city’s venues, who often work as freelancers or independent contractors.
New Yorkers working in nightlife industries set up the New York City Nightlife Coalition to help sustain them and to advocate for them. Their ranks include musicians and artists whose creativity has flowered even while their bank accounts have not.
Many of these artists, and the business owners who work with them, running galleries, clubs and performance spaces, are driven more by their dedication to the arts than the demands of running a small business, said Ric Leichtung, a concert promoter and co-founder of the coalition. “They just know they feel more passionate about culture than anything else. They have to participate.”
As the city plunges into summer, many of these workers are still worried about people wearing masks, getting vaccinated and keeping their workplaces safe, especially amid concerns about the Delta variant. That anxiety is echoed by the city’s Independent Budget Office, which said a “slow and uncertain recovery” lay ahead, especially for service workers who depend on face-to-face contact with tourists and customers.
Still, the last 15 months have helped many rediscover talents and gain new skills.
Mr. Ajche, who has returned to his night job delivering for restaurants, said his time distributing food, masks and cleaning supplies and going to rallies in support of workers made him realize he may be anonymous, but he is not powerless.
“The pandemic was hard, but it taught me I can help,” he said. “I would come home exhausted, but hearing ‘gracias’ or ‘God bless you,’ that was beautiful. I’ll never forget my roots in Guatemala. But I feel like a real New Yorker now. I struggled for my community.”
318 Restaurant Workers Union
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce
CSEA Local 1000
Hotel Association of New York City
Independent Drivers Guild
Institute for Career Development
Laundry Workers Center United
Make the Road
NYC Nightlife United
Send Chinatown Love
The Drivers Cooperative
Welcome to Chinatown
Workers Justice Project
Yemeni American Merchants Association
Written by David Gonzalez
Photographs by Todd Heisler
Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting
Designed and developed by Gray Beltran and Rumsey Taylor
Produced and edited by Jeffrey Furticella and Meghan Louttit
Special thanks to Sonny Figueroa, William O’Donnell and the NYT Art Production Department