Volume 5: Number 2, July 21 2002.
Post 9/11:The Working Poor Pay the Price
by Linta Varghese
September 11th was a disaster. We were told that America and the ideals it stands for had been attacked. However, we were to show no fear, lest the evil-doers' aim of disrupting life in the United States come to fruition. Instead we were urged to reflect but carry on with life as usual. This rush to normalcy was, after all, our patriotic duty. This call was heard even louder in New York City. We had not only the president of the nation, but also the mayor urging us to return to our pre 9/11 lives as much as possible.
George and his crew would not only hunt down, smoke out and bring the terrorists to justice, but would also take care of us, the American people. Those in Middle America could place their trust in George and co. (which soon included Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, and other international boys) and sleep peacefully. Those of us in New York could also do that and find a sense of safety seeing military tanks in lower Manhattan and gun-carrying soldiers in Penn Station and other high-target areas. Unlike the rest of the nation, we would also be helped financially. For those suffering big corporations and businesses, a $21 billion aid package was put together. For us unlucky working bastards, FEMA, Red Cross, Safe Horizons and numerous private charities would help us get over both the emotional and financial shock of 9/11.
Now, eight months later, life in most of New York City has returned to normal. A couple of months ago, designer Ann Taylor was cheered for being the first big clothier to open a new store in the affected Lower Manhattan areas, bringing both new business and jobs to the disaster area. American Express's main offices, which were located in the financial district, have reopened. Workers return with little trepidation to the very spot where they earlier fled for their lives. And now despite the absence of Cats, Mathew Broderick and Nathan Lane on Broadway, tourists are slowly, but steadily returning to experience New York.
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However, life for many of the working poor in New York remains a disaster. While both the progressive and, to a lesser extent, mainstream press have highlighted the racial profiling, hate crimes and detentions that are a consequence of 9/11, the day-to-day conditions of low income and poor New Yorkers have emerged as an important fight. Eight months after the attacks, despite the aid packages, job (re) training and corporate bail out, there are still large numbers of people unemployed and underemployed due to the economic downturn caused by the events of 9/11. An early assessment study of the impact of 9/11 by the Fiscal Policy Institute said that half of the job loss would occur in industries which typically employ less skilled, low-wage workers. Many of these are immigrants and people of color who were, pre-9/11, already one check away from crisis. Those who were able to access the aid packages now find that their disaster benefits are about to run out. Others who were never eligible increasingly turn to private charities as their job prospects and income steadily decline.
As time passes the mismanagement of relief aid and lack of concern for working poor and immigrant New Yorkers has become evident. The response by the federal and local government to the needs of low-income New Yorkers and immigrants following the attacks are very much in line with what was occurring pre-9/11. They don't really care. Now, however, with the rush to help ailing corporations and big businesses (who, after all, are the representatives of all America stands for) there is no need for even a cursory glance at unwanted populations.
Shortly after the attacks, projected estimates of jobs that would be lost from various institutes and offices ranged from 90,000 at the least to 150,000 at the most. Last December, the New York State Department of Labor reported that since December 2000, there have been about 135,000 jobs lost. If we take into account the number of self- employed who have had to shut down their business, the numbers would most likely rise to 150,000, the highest end of the projected range. This doesn't account for the large number of workers who have had their hours reduced, but are still considered employed.
New Yorkers who lost their jobs were eligible for two types of unemployment pay. The first option, also available during non-catastrophic times, is Unemployment Insurance (UI). In New York City, the cap on UI payments is $285 per week. Generally, unemployed workers get less than this amount. At this point, though, most victims who had been receiving UI are at the point of exhausting their allotted payments.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) was also available. Funded by the federal government and administered by the Department of Labor, DUA is available for people who lose their jobs as a result of a presidentially declared disaster.
DUA is intended to help workers who do not qualify for Unemployment Insurance. These include people who were working part-time and also those who had not been in the labor force for the required amount of time. Benefits are to be paid for six months after the disaster. March 17 was the last day of payment for the 9/11 attacks. Other relief benefits include food stamps, Medicaid, and rental assistance.
Of course, there are a number of obstacles to getting relief aid. First, one has to be an American citizen to access all these benefits. While documented immigrants do qualify for some assistance, in keeping with the 1996 changes in the law, food stamps and Medicaid won't be given. There is also another document one needs: old paychecks. For those who work in New York City's informal sector, or who are paid under the table, these may be hard to produce. Finally, many of the forms are in English. While there were limited translation services available, the lack of forms in other languages prevented many from applying for aid; many others were turned down due to errors in their answers.
Add to this that people who have lost their jobs as a result of 9/11 can only get UI or DUA if they have suffered job loss as a "direct result of the disaster." The narrow definition by the government agencies of those directly affected are workers whose employer: (1) suffered economic loss due to physical damage to the workplace, or (2) suffered economic loss due to limited physical access to workplace, or (3) suffered economic loss due to limited access to another business upon which the employer relied for commerce. FEMA instituted an arbitrary line at Houston Street to designate the "directly impacted area." Under this definition, the taxi driver who relied on lower Manhattan for most of his fares is not directly affected. Neither is the midtown hotel worker whose hours have been reduced due to the decline in tourism.
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One of the worst affected areas was New York's Chinatown. For the first few days after the attacks, large parts of Chinatown were closed off to both foot and vehicle traffic. Two months after the attacks, major subway stops still remained closed. Months later, portions were still restricted due to their proximity to federal, state and city offices. In addition, phone and electricity service was disrupted for up to two months after the attack. The temporary shutdown of areas had a huge effect on the economy of the area. While most of Chinatown has now been opened up, things are hardly back to normal.
A visit to Chinatown would quickly establish Canal St as one of the community's major arteries. It was generally packed with residents, visitors, shops, restaurants, and vendors. Three of the major subway stations to get to Chinatown are also on this street, and Canal is one of the easiest ways to get to the side streets. Canal also became the dividing line for those considered affected and those who are fine. Residents and businesses on the South side of Canal, including the south side of the street, could ask for help. However, if you lived or worked on the north side of Canal, you were on the wrong side. The arbitrary division of Canal effectively excluded 10,000 workers from receiving aid.
Though everything we hear about the horrible working conditions in garment factories is true, it is the industry which employs the most workers in Chinatown, making it vital for the basic survival of many. Of the 246 garment factories in Chinatown, eighty percent are located north of Canal St. Due to the varying sizes, it is hard to estimate how many workers work in each factory, but it is safe to assume that the majority of the 13,800 garment workers work north of Canal.
Some numbers from a report by Asian American Federation New York: In the first two weeks following September 11, there was already a loss of $2.5 million in revenues in the garment industry. Forty factories had shut down in the first three months. From the already dismal pre 9/11 pay of $207/week garment workers now, on average, make $112/week. Of those still employed, 70% work reduced hours.
The economy of Chinatown depends heavily on the garment and tourism industry. While it is obvious that tourists bring in much money to the area, workers also keep the economy afloat through patronizing the local stores, restaurants and other businesses in Chinatown. The baseline employment in Chinatown is 33,658. 7,685 or 23% of Chinatown workers were laid off in the 3 months after 9/11. Despite the dismal working conditions in most of these industries–garment, restaurant, retail, jewelry--they provide most of the entry level employment to most Chinese immigrants in New York City.
As Chinatown's economy steadily declines, businesses and residents become even more vulnerable to the gentrification and displacement already in motion. Rents in Chinatown, like the rest of New York City, have steadily increased over the last few years. However, unlike Central Park West, the Upper East Side or Chelsea, Chinatown has always been able to offer somewhat affordable apartments – though not always in the best conditions – to new and old Chinese immigrants.
As space becomes both limited and expensive, those who cannot afford rents in other parts of Manhattan, but can cover the rents in newly gentrifying areas, have moved into Chinatown. Older Chinese residents now complain of increasing rents, and new immigrants have a hard time finding housing in the area. The ubiquitous markers of gentrification – a Starbuck's coffee shop and small independent designer boutiques -- have already moved in.
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In a response to the devastation in Lower Manhattan, then mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki established the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). This entity is a 'public' group entrusted with the development of the areas south of Houston Street. While present Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognizes that "it is especially important that everyone who has an interest in Lower Manhattan have a voice in the planning efforts," a quick perusal of the board of LMDC will turn up no community representatives. Rather the board is composed of businessmen and lawyers, and one New York AFL-CIO official. There are several advisory committees to ensure that the concerns of all are heard. However, given that the quality-of-life mentality and its concomitant sense of entitlement began with the Giuliani government, we cannot help but be skeptical about the voices of the working people/immigrants being included.
On April 9, the LMDC unveiled its Blueprint for Renewal. Gov. Pataki hailed the blueprint stating that it, "reflect[s] the energy and creativity of so many people across the City who are working to ensure Lower Manhattan emerges from this tragedy stronger and better than it was before." The LMDC Principles for Action is full of words like "desirable future development," "private investment," and "economic vitality." If the already established track record is any indication, working folk and immigrants had better get ready to be expendable in the face of rebuilding business and the economy.
The World Trade Center Marriott Hotel was destroyed in the attacks. Located in the area considered directly attacked, Marriott, Inc was eligible for monies through the $21 billion governmental package set aside for corporations and businesses that suffered losses in the attack. Hundreds of Marriott workers lost their jobs overnight and were promised positions by Bill Marriott himself in two new Marriott, Inc hotels being built in Manhattan. When ex-WTC Marriott workers applied for jobs, they were often passed up for those with no experience. Instead, Marriott hired new employees at lower pay. Many of the employees had been working for Marriott for over ten years and earned about $17 an hour. Some employees believe that Marriott was waiting for them to say that they would take a paycut in return for a job. After six months of fighting, and weekly protests outside of the Marriott Hotel in Times Square and with the help of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), some employees were finally rehired.
Redeveloping Lower Manhattan has also meant ignoring a large part of the residential population. As with the Marriott travesty, it seems that the government is most concerned about wealthy businesses and residents. Like the arbitrary line on Canal in Chinatown, the Lower East Side, where many immigrants and low income people live, is not considered an affected area whereas the West Side is. Immediately after the attacks, residents on the West Side were told to move to other locations so they would reduce the effects of the toxic air. Residents on the East Side and Chinatown were told that the air was safe, and that there was no need to leave the area. However, the government, in its concern has given out free air filters to Lower East Side residents. However, that is a far cry from the government-paid cleanup of apartments that many West Side residents have received. In addition, subsidies have been given out to lure people back to the West Side, whereas many East Side residents failed to qualify for FEMA's rental assistance program and are now in danger of being evicted.
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The situation was best expressed by a Lower East Side resident. When asked if they were being ignored by the government, she said, "We were ignored long before 9/11. We shouldn't expect that it'll be any different, even after such a tragedy." 9/11 has provided a needed excuse to mow down working people and immigrants who stand in the way of "development." Workers are applauded for taking a pay cut to save the businesses they work for. We are continually asked to persevere for the sake of the nation, and as New Yorkers, for the rebuilding of our city.
However, more and more people refuse to remain silent and suck it up in the name of patriotism. At a recent town hall meeting organized by Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), NMASS, and other community groups and workers' centers, workers and residents expressed their frustration, anger and demands to officials from FEMA, Red Cross, Safe Horizons and the local government. There were over 1500 people and the meeting was held in the cafeteria of a local elementary school, rather than the bureaucratic spaces that have sprung up since the attacks.
The officials deflected numerous questions with claims that the problem lay not with the local relief efforts, but with a government in Washington that has little knowledge of New York City. Trinh Nguyen a board member of CSWA, asked a question that was on many minds. Speaking of the impact on the garment industry in Chinatown, she put it bluntly: "The way we see it FEMA and the government have been anti-poor and anti- women since this started. Now, is that the Washington office, the local office or just the entire structure?" Her comments raised thunderous applause from the audience and nervous laughter from the FEMA representative.
[Linta is a freaked out graduate student who puts in time with Workers Aawaaz in New York.]