Lucio lost his job at the start of the pandemic. He had been working at a Chinese buffet restaurant in the Bronx for eight years. Desperate for work, Lucio turned to an industry that did not close with the pandemic: street vending.
The morning of June 22, Lucio was in good spirits as he opened his taco stand in the Bronx. He had grown to really love his job.
“Even if the restaurant reopened, I wouldn’t go back,” Lucio said.
But, last Tuesday, as New York voted for its next Mayor, Lucio was fined $2,050 by NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) for unlicensed food vending. For over a year, he has been working every day at the same location. This was the first time he has been penalized for operating without a vending permit.
The two plain clothes agents who fined Lucio did not speak Spanish and Lucio, much like his fellow street vendors, does not speak English. He asked to be referred to by just his first name. Lucio is unsure of what rules he violated, let alone how to respond to the penalty. Due to language barriers, the City officials also recorded Lucio’s address on the ticket incorrectly, a discrepancy which he is worried about and does not know how to amend.
The standard fine for unpermitted mobile food vending is $1,000. Lucio received this fine along with two others: one for unlicensed food vending for $1,000, and one for vending less than 20 feet away from a building entrance for $50, totaling $2,050. Permits are a capped number of vendors allowed to operate in NYC, which must be renewed every two years. Licenses are in reference to receiving the necessary training to sell and handle prepared food; these courses are generally $50.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the food protection course for mobile food vendors —required to receive a license — is only available online and in English.
Lucio explained that when choosing where to vend, he asked the store owner of a hair salon near his cart if they would mind him selling tacos on the same corner as the storefront. He recounted that the owner not only said yes, they thought it could help improve their business as well.
The Street Vendor Project (SVP), a member-led organization that advocates on behalf of vendors, reports that as New York City has reopened, there has been an uptick in fines of street vendors, especially in Queens.
A week before Lucio was fined, the morning of June 16, SVP held a rally in Corona Plaza to bring awareness to the fines levied at these essential workers as soon as the pandemic receded and NYC reopened. One of the demands of the press conference was a year-long moratorium on fines. Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas was in attendance and reported witnessing a vendor nearby being fined during the rally.
“We are seeing this with our own eyes and it’s completely disrespectful. These workers don’t deserve to be fined, in fact, they deserve to be celebrated after what they did for us during the pandemic,” González-Rojas said in a phone interview with Documented.
The NYC DOHMH responded with the following email in response to a request for a comment: “The Health Department is charged with protecting the health and safety of New Yorkers including ensuring the food they consume – be it from a restaurant or mobile carts or truck – meets safety requirements. Carts/trucks that earn an A grade at the time of inspection – which is the vast majority – do not receive a summons subject to fines for sanitary violations.”
A few weeks ago González-Rojas hosted an ice cream gathering in Travers Park in Jackson Heights Queens for her community and to support the work of street vendors. The vendors serving González-Rojas’ gathering were aggressively questioned by NYC Parks Department employees until González-Rojas’ staff intervened and defended the vendors, one of whom reported being fined at a later date while working Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
A year of economic and job scarcity led to many more individuals choosing to enter the informal economy of street vending out of necessity. During this time, there was little to no issuing of fines because New York City, in large part, was closed.
“Now, as the City reopens, we are seeing that for vendors returning to ‘normal’ means being persecuted,” said SVP Deputy Director Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez.
Throughout the pandemic, street vendors, of which there are estimated to be 15,000-20,000, provided food and COVID-19 protection gear at cheap prices, especially for other essential workers unable to access masks or afford cost-prohibitive food prices. These small business owners are iconic to New York City’s streets and are also often undocumented and predominately Hispanic immigrants, according to a SVP survey.
“When restaurants were closed, these were the people who fed us. When we couldn’t get PPE gear, these were the people who got it for us. They risked their lives for others,” González-Rojas said.
Prior to January of this year, regulation of vending permits, health code violations, and general vendor operations fell under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. Now, after seven years of organizing and the passage of Intro 1116, oversight has been transferred to NYC’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP). This was a win for street vendors who, previous to the legislation, would be approached and fined by armed police officers, a particularly threatening and alarming experience if undocumented.
DCWP is the coordinating agency for all street vending activity; however, the following city agencies also oversee vending: Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), Parks & Recreation (Parks), Sanitation (DSNY), Environmental Protection (DEP), Transportation (DOT), Small Business Services (SBS), and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).
Intro 1116 also expanded, for the first time in over four decades, the number of city-allocated street vending permits. The number of street vendor permits has been fixed since the cap was created in 1979 and 1983: approximately 5,100 prepared food vendor permits and 853 general merchandise vendor permits, leaving anywhere between 10,000-15,000 street vendors without the proper documentation to do their job, according to SVP data. The waitlist to get a street vending permit closed in 2007 because the list was already so long.
The January legislation will allow for an additional 4,000 permits, over the course of 10 years starting in 2022. Just 400 new permits will be allocated each year. Individuals on the multi-year waiting list will be prioritized, however, all of the street vendors who currently operate and may be eligible for a permit in 2022 are still subject to fines until next year.
The recent surge in fines against street vendors has drawn criticism from SVP, City Council Member Carlina Rivera, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Senators Jessica Ramos and Robert Jackson, and Assembly Members Zohran Mamdani, Jessica González-Rojas, and Catalina Cruz, especially given the contributions from this industry of workers during the pandemic.
“Street vendors provide countless immigrant and working-class New Yorkers with a chance to launch their own small businesses and support their families, as well contribute to the local economy in an important and meaningful way,” wrote Council Member Carlina Rivera in an email to Documented.
These elected officials are now advocating for a new piece of legislation, Senate Bill S1175A, that would eradicate the cap on permits entirely.
Yesterday, July 7, street vendors joined Mayor de Blasio’s Hometown Heroes’ Ticker Tape Parade to thank essential workers. They marched with signs calling for inclusive recovery and the passage of SB 1175A. Lucio was there marching alongside his fellow street vendors. He is afraid to return to work but is turning this setback into motivation to demand change.
“Vendors are excluded workers, they were left out of every form of Covid-relief. It is unfair that these essential workers – who have long been invisibilized – are now only receiving attention from the City in the form of fines,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez in an interview.
Street vendors without permits are operating in the informal, cash economy, making them ineligible for federal relief and benefits. This precarious economic structure also disincentivizes vendors from investing in their businesses for fear that they could be shut down at any time. The rules and regulations around where vendors can and cannot vend can often vary block to block. An area in midtown Manhattan, known as the ‘Midtown Box’, “bans all general vendors from doing business between 65th and 30th Streets, Second to Ninth Avenues.”
It will take Lucio many months of continued unlicensed street vending to make the money needed to pay the $2,050 fine. He came to the US in 2001 from Guerrero, Mexico fleeing death threats placed on him and his son, much of the money he makes goes to supporting his two children. Lucio is undocumented and throughout the pandemic received no form of financial relief.
“During covid, I felt comfortable and happy working. Now I feel threatened but I have to keep working. Of course I am scared, but I don’t have another option,” Lucio said in an interview the same day he received his fine; however, he has yet to return to work.