Dec 21, 2020

Austin’s Unauthorized Workers Fall Victim to Slowdown in Hospitality Industry

Reporting Texas

Downtown Austin, Texas. Photo by MJ Tangonan/UnSplash

Stephanie’s anxiety swelled as her boyfriend walked out of their Austin apartment. Despite the uncertainty, Stephanie, 34, refused to bow to his insistence that she abort their child. The moment marked the climax of a difficult month of May, in which she lost her job for a local catering company, learned she was pregnant and moved out of an apartment she could no longer afford. 

“My whole world fell apart,” Stephanie said, describing the convergence of personal crises in May. Reporting Texas interviewed Stephanie in Spanish and is using an alias for the woman, who is living in the country illegally.

As the pandemic has ravaged the hospitality industry, many unauthorized workers such as Stephanie have lost employment. According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the city’s employment in the hospitality and leisure industry stood at 76% of its pre-pandemic level as of late September. The Texas Workforce Commission reported 160,800 fewer accommodation and food services jobs across the state in October compared to February, before the pandemic arrived.

Unauthorized workers tend to immediately seek other employment after losing work because they do not have access to unemployment benefits. With restaurants, bars and hotels shuttered or operating at partial capacity, the jobs that would typically offer that flexibility are no longer available. 

Prior to the pandemic, Stephanie worked for a catering company that provided meals to an Austin-based technology company. With that technology company requiring most of its employees to work from home, the caterer could no longer pay its employees. 

Stephanie said she could find work in the construction industry but fears that the manual labor and potential exposure to the virus are too dangerous for her pregnancy. 

“The pandemic has been very hard,” she said, fighting back tears. She added that the stress has caused her to develop mental health illnesses, including anxiety and depression, and that she has had suicidal thoughts for the first time in her life. 

Nadia Flores-Yeffal, a sociology professor at Texas Tech University, says that many are in the same position as Stephanie. She studied labor patterns among unauthorized immigrants after the 2008 recession and found that laid off workers tended to immediately find new jobs with lower pay and worse conditions. 

“They never stopped working because they can’t access unemployment benefits,” she said. 

For many unauthorized workers in the hospitality sector those lower-quality jobs do not exist during a pandemic, she added. 

Flores-Yeffal noted that the pandemic has hit restaurants and hotels, both major sources of employment for unauthorized workers, particularly hard. According to Statista, 7.6% of leisure and hospitality employees in 2016 were unauthorized immigrants. That’s the third-highest share of unauthorized workers among the 11 employment sectors tracked. 

Scott Joslove, president of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, acknowledged that the pandemic has been hard on the industry. However, he said the industry does not hire unauthorized labor. 

“Undocumented workers cannot be hired in the hotel or hospitality industry. We have seen huge reductions and layoffs in the hotel industry in Texas, but this involves documented workers,” Joslove said in an email. 

The Texas Restaurant Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Stephanie has lived in the United States for 14 years, working in cafeterias and restaurants in the Austin area, she said. With those jobs in short supply, she got creative and recently began selling Mexican cheeses on Facebook. Her sister, who lives in northern Mexico, has helped to supply the cheese. 

“This is the first time in my life that I’m working as a self-employed vendor,” she said.

In addition to her pregnancy, Stephanie has three daughters from her ex-husband. She is grateful that the grandparents of her three daughters agreed to let them stay in their house. 

After losing her job in May, she could no longer make rent payments at her apartment. The grandfather of her three daughters has continued to provide for the family through his construction job. 

Casa Marianella, an Austin-based nonprofit that provides shelter to low-income immigrants, has seen its services in high demand since the start of the pandemic. Sofia Kimball, a legal assistant at Casa Marianella, said when South by Southwest was canceled in March, unauthorized workers, particularly in hospitality, began losing their jobs.

“Everyone is very upset and extremely stressed out,” Kimball said. 

She added that many families of laid-off hospitality workers are struggling to put food on the table. 

According to Kimball, these families have relied on the city of Austin’s Relief in a State of Emergency, or RISE, and the subsequent RISE 2.0 funds. 

The city opened applications for the $10 million RISE 2.0 fund on Sept.14 after the initial $15 million RISE fund set up in May ran out of money. RISE 2.0 aimed to distribute the entirety of its funding by Oct 30. It’s unclear if the city will announce a third installment to help more vulnerable groups, like unauthorized immigrants. 

Bobby Painter, the managing attorney at American Gateways, an Austin law office for low income immigrants, has noticed a similarly devastating trend for unauthorized hospitality workers. In particular, the firm has seen an increased volume of questions around how clients can gain access to unemployment benefits, stimulus money and housing assistance since the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s relaxing of pandemic-related restrictions throughout Texas, most of his clients are still struggling to find work, Painter added.

“Some have been able to go back to working in a restaurant at limited hours, but it has been a challenge for many,” Painter said. A handful have found opportunities in childcare or more informal sectors, but those roles are also in short supply, he said.

Painter stressed that unauthorized immigrants do not have access to unemployment benefits, leaving them in a precarious position after the economic downturn.  

As Stephanie nears her Dec.18 due date, she is thankful that the pregnancy itself has gone smoothly but struggles to view the world her baby will enter through an optimistic lens. 

“This pandemic has been extremely bitter and anxious for me,” she said with a sigh.