Hundreds of workers in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville were laid off in the last two weeks following orders to close all nonessential businesses and limit restaurants to offering takeout and delivery only.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the order on March 16, leaving independently-owned businesses in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville—along with businesses all over the city—at risk of financial ruin. Earlier that same week, Columbia said it would continue remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, and, following the diagnosis of an affiliate with the coronavirus, closed its dormitories to all but those in need of emergency housing. With Columbia students leaving campus in droves with no foreseeable return date, many businesses in the neighborhood—who depend on students as a significant source of revenue—feared impending closures.
The Spectator contacted 50 businesses—including grocery stores, restaurants, and cafés—out of the roughly 200 businesses in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville. About 30 of them responded, reporting over 370 layoffs and crippling declines in sales due to the COVID-19 precautions.
For the “essential” businesses that were permitted to stay open during the pandemic, owners had—and continue to have—a crucial decision to make: Do they close their doors, allowing their employees to receive unemployment benefits, or stay open and cut their workers’ hours to do so?
Some small business owners have decided to continue operating by keeping their staff but cutting their hours. Staying open would allow people to still get paid while the U.S. economy falls into a recession, business owners said.
The downside: Reduced hours do not provide many workers with enough income to support themselves.
John Diaz, an employee at Milano Market, said he was grateful that his boss decided to keep the store open and the team employed. But in order to do this, Diaz said his hours were severely reduced. He went from working 56 hours over six days per week to around 20 hours over three days per week, creating a serious financial strain.
“[My] check is like a part-time job,” Diaz said. “I can’t live with a part-time job. I’m 20 years old. I have an apartment; I have stuff to pay for.”
Diaz, who manages catering for Milano, said the business has been greatly affected by the exodus of Columbia students from campus, as he would have typically seen busy spring months catering for graduation. But with most students gone from campus, Commencement canceled, and the city on lockdown, people are no longer celebrating.
Kazi Hossain, a manager at Koronet Pizza, a popular pizza joint for many Columbia students, said he is worried that the restaurant may eventually have to close due to a lack of takeout orders.
“When we lose the students, we lose business,” Hossain said.
In response to the disastrous economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, Columbia announced on March 20 that small local businesses housed in University properties would not have to pay rent for the months of April and May.
“What Columbia did will go a long way in helping us and the other restaurants in the neighborhood fight our way through this,” Michael Zoulis, the owner of Tom’s Restaurant, a diner which has been open since the 1940s, said.
Tom’s, which is housed in a University-owned building, laid off about 25 employees last week. It is still open for takeout and delivery.
But for those not housed in University-owned properties, owners are scrambling to negotiate rents and find a way to pay for their businesses’ expenses.
“Rent is a decent percentage of our expenses when we’re busy, so with our revenue down by about 90 percent, it’s definitely [a problem],” Joost Charlow, the general manager of The Heights Bar and Grill, said.
Small, independently-owned businesses—like The Heights—are much more vulnerable during times of economic hardship than large chains with significant corporate backing.
“Obviously all the Shake Shacks and the Chipotles, they’ll be able to weather and reopen up down the line,” Charlow said. “But it’s less of a guarantee for us, even though we’re doing everything we can to make that happen.”
Ramon Diaz, the owner of the 12th Avenue restaurant Floridita, said he initially attempted to stay open for takeout and delivery last week, but after only making $388 in a day, he was unable to pay his employees, forcing him to close. He decided to lay off his entire staff of about 40 people, saying that it was the best option for his employees who could file for unemployment.
“I can’t pay people if I’m not operating,” Diaz said.
On a federal level, the U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, which includes direct payments of $1,200 to taxpayers with incomes up to $75,000 per year, as well as emergency loans for small businesses that have not laid off their employees. The House is expected to pass the package and President Donald Trump is likely to quickly enact it.
But many small businesses in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville will be left out of this package because, due to being unable to pay their workers, they have already laid off their staff.
Diaz said he is looking for other loan options for his restaurant. He applied for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan, a low-interest loan for businesses in disaster-stricken areas, but he has not yet been approved.
“If we don't get some sort of loan program approved by the SBA on a federal level or by the city, we’re done,” Diaz said.
Undocumented workers, who are unable to apply for unemployment benefits due to their immigration status, are also placed in a vulnerable position amid an impending recession. According to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, undocumented New Yorkers have a labor force participation rate of 77.3 percent, which is significantly higher than the 64.8 percent participation rate of the total population. It is not yet clear if the federal stimulus package—which gives direct payments to people who pay taxes—will allow undocumented people to participate even if they pay taxes.
One 34-year-old undocumented local worker who asked to remain anonymous due to her immigration status was laid off from her job as a shift manager at a Manhattanville restaurant last week. Originally from Mexico, she has lived in New York for more than 20 years and is a taxpayer. However, because she lacks a Social Security number, she has no way to apply for unemployment benefits.
She has called to file for unemployment multiple times in recent days, staying on the line for hours a time, and she said operators were unwilling to help her. The worker, a mother of three, said her oldest son, who is 18, also lost his job, along with her husband.
“I’m struggling. You always have a little savings, but honestly, with this situation, I don’t think that savings [will be enough],” she said. “I’m down to my last $200, and honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Despite her pressing circumstances, the worker said she and her coworkers—who have also been laid off—check in with each other regularly. They offer to help pay for taxis or Ubers, willing to help however they can.
“Today, when I spoke to my coworker, she’s in the same situation,” she said, referring to her immigration status. “I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of me out there.”