“The new thing that we’re seeing, as a result of the reopening and employers getting some money to bring workers back, is that employers are now asking workers to come back to work, often without many of the protections that would be necessary in place.”
Mr. Zhu (the name he has given for privacy reasons) used to cook at an Asian restaurant on Boylston Street, working in a kitchen that was less than 10 by 10 square feet. He commuted from Hong Lok House in Chinatown, an affordable housing complex for elders that is run by the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center. Before coming to this job, he worked at a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Chinatown. On a typical day at his most recent place of employment, he prepared appetizers and operated the fryer.
When the restaurant heard about the order for dine-in services to cease, it transitioned to only running delivery and takeout. It followed this model for about a week before shuttering completely. Business was also impacted by the loss of student clientele, who mostly had to move out due to the spread of the coronavirus. Now, with restaurants preparing to reopen, Zhu finds himself in a difficult situation. He would like to resume work and be able to pay his rent, but he also anticipates that many restaurants will not have adequate protective measures in place.
“On the one hand, I worry about safety, but on the other hand, I need to figure out a way to have an income and to live,” Zhu said through a translator. “I can’t have both, right now. It all depends on people. This whole business depends on people, yet people’s safety is also important. You need to have people around, people to work, people to go into the restaurants and buy things. … I live in subsidized housing. The rent is $516 a month. But that’s about 50% of my income. I make about $1,100 a month. With unemployment, my income is half.”
Many restaurants, particularly Chinese establishments, have been hit extremely hard in the pandemic. Anti-Asian sentiment has been fueled by stories of the coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, and xenophobia has made it hard for restaurants to sustain. A number of Chinatown spots have temporarily shut down, while some, like Golden Gate, are preparing to reopen, and still others, like Gourmet Dumpling House, have been running takeout only. The closing down of restaurants like Peach Farm and Chinatown’s China Pearl has left many workers unemployed. Left at home, a lot of them are still wondering how they will pay rent and survive.
Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) Executive Director Karen Chen said there are many barriers to employment for Chinese American residents, including language difficulties, transportation, and the need for child care. At the same time, many workers need support in applying for unemployment benefits, as the system is difficult for individuals who do not speak English to navigate. Over the past two months, CPA has fielded approximately 1,500 phone calls relating to problems with unemployment, Chen said.
Meanwhile, as restrictions are lifted and businesses begin to open up again, spokespeople like Bethany Li, director of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, fear that restaurants will not take all the necessary safety measures to protect their workers.
“The new thing that we’re seeing, as a result of the reopening and employers getting some money to bring workers back, is that employers are now asking workers to come back to work, often without many of the protections that would be necessary in place,” Li said. “That’s the new emerging issue, for restaurants in Chinatown, in terms of what we’re hearing from low-wage workers. The idea that they will be providing masks, that’s not clear. As some of these businesses reopen, it feels like we’re having restaurant workers and other low wage workers be guinea pigs for this reopening. There’s no guidance or requirements for what businesses should be providing for the employees to ensure that they’re working in a safe environment.”
Chen said that many Chinatown restaurants might face a shortage of protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies. Many do not have easy access to these supplies or feel that PPE is an additional cost that they cannot afford. Zhu said that the kitchen where he works is small, making social distancing nearly impossible. Another problem that employees in immigrant communities may experience at work is wage theft, Chen said, as there are not enough policies in place to protect them from problematic employers.
Meanwhile, anti-Asian sentiment has contributed to the decline in business activity for Asian American communities. On May 22, UMass Boston held a webinar as part of the Outbreak Racism Stories Project, during which Asian American students shared video clips describing their experiences of racism, as linked to the virus. The videos were co-produced by the Digital Storytelling in Asian American Studies initiative, led by Professor Shirley Tang. In one story, student Alice Zhou said that a relative had heard such racial comments while at work. Another student, Kinh Ha, noted the impact of racism and the need for individuals to confront it with solidarity.
“Systemic racism is deeply rooted, but this event acts as a means and a catalyst for racist actions to be enacted publically to Asian Americans,” Ha said. “It is frightening that fear spreads faster than the virus.”
As restaurants begin to reopen, Li said it’s important for workers to be protected from the spread of the virus at their places of employment. Industry leaders must consider what measures should be in place, while there should be more of a dialog between workers and their employers, she added.
“What this needs to involve is a lot more back and forth between employer and employee and thought about what it means to create a safe working environment, which should always be the principle, separate from this pandemic,” Li said. “But I think it’s highlighted even more, as a result of this pandemic. We’re not living in normal times, and no one should be approaching their work situation as though we are.”
Zhu said that like many workers, he is in a bind. Even though the adequate protective measures may not be in place, it is still more important for him to have a job, he said.
“I would go back there,” Zhu said. “If I’m required to go back, I would go back and try to work.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.