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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
The owner of Silver Spoon, Vidya Gurikar, listened in horror as Governor Gavin Newsom effectively shut California down. Her son’s wedding, set for April 18th, was exactly a month away. The threat of cancellation now hung in the air. Her son, Shreyas, whose wedding it was, worked in the business with her, a small business that – wait for it – catered weddings.
As a high-end gourmet catering company, Silver Spoon faced cancellation of all client celebratory events. The company must pivot if they have to survive.
Vidya stepped up her takeout business. Their small business had a mortgage on the commercial kitchen to pay, and staff to keep employed. Spring harvest celebrations like Ugadi and Gudi Padwa have prescribed sweets and dishes. Client orders poured in. Vidya took to scouring grocery stores very early in the morning to gather ingredients, sometimes going to five different grocery stores to cook one takeout menu. Shreyas’ wedding had still not been canceled. March threatened to roll into April and the end of the shutdown was not in sight.
Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27 promising small businesses like Silver Spoon some reprieve. Potentially forgivable loans were available at low rates of interest. However very few saw the money before the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was exhausted. Crowdsourced database COVID Loan Tracker showed that only about 5 (or five percent) of those who applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan say they’ve received one. Less than 9 percent of the Protection Payment Plan monies went to the small businesses in food services.
Funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s big initiative to aid small businesses and their employees during the coronavirus lockdown, ran out of cash within two weeks of funds opening on April 3.
On Friday, April 17, at a Zoom briefing update on the Pandemic Impact on Ethnic Populations organized by Ethnic Media Services and sponsored by the Blue Shield of California Foundation—Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents California’s 17th District in the heart of the Silicon Valley high-tech hub where Silver Spoon’s customers live, spoke of the need to increase help to small businesses and workers in essential businesses. “In an age of automation, we are reminded of the dignity and importance of work that is not remote,” said Representative Khanna.
“This crisis needs to open our eyes to the value of workers who are often invisible, and we need to give them the pay and benefits they deserve.” Along with United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Khanna has made a proposal for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to protect frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic. They have requested that the next coronavirus relief package to pass Congress must include the policies in the Essential Workers Bill of Rights.
Congressman Khanna and Representative Tim Ryan from Ohio, also have introduced the Emergency Money for the People Act to provide additional cash payments for hard-working Americans who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The one-time payment under the CARES Act does not provide nearly enough support for American families like Vidya Gurikar’s.
There are a number of undocumented workers working in the food industry. Panelists at the EMS briefing feared that undocumented workers, who have long been understood to be a backbone of the California restaurant industry, will receive no relief if they have no social security number.
Regardless of their immigration status, workers should be helped said Assemblymember David Chiu. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) will provide $125 million in stimulus checks to undocumented workers. The PUA benefits are payable if you don’t qualify for regular Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits in California or another state, and also do not qualify for State Disability Insurance or Paid Family Leave benefits.
California will give 150,000 undocumented adults a one-time cash benefit of $500 each with a cap of $1,000 per household. Undocumented workers, who are not eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or unemployment insurance due to their immigration status, form nearly 10 percent of California’s workforce, said Governor Newsom. They are “overrepresented” in sectors that have been deemed essential such as healthcare, agriculture and food services, manufacturing and logistics.
Since the pandemic hit California, other grassroots financial assistance programs have been created for undocumented workers affected by COVID-19-related job losses in San Francisco and Sonoma County. A relief fund for local migrant youth was launched in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and Alameda counties, and recently reopened its application process.
The question that remains unanswered though is how does an undocumented worker get the monies. This is not yet clear. The state’s funds will be dispersed through regional nonprofits who have experience serving undocumented communities, and personal information from undocumented workers will not be required.
Vidya and her son Shreyas have decided to go ahead with the planned wedding. It will be a quiet ceremony in the backyard.
Orange flowers, traditional color for a Hindu wedding, festoon the metal pagoda set up beneath the tall pine tree. Fragrance of the peach-tree blossoms drops down onto the blades of lemongrass. Mint shoots sparkle green. Wooden figures playing traditional musical instruments line up under the tree, guests at the family-only garden wedding.
The bride, resplendent in a red saree, looks worriedly at the images of her parents’ Zoomed in from India. The groom, handsome in a long golden sherwani coat adjusts the turban on his forehead as he sits on an orange and black chair beneath a curtain of marigold-orange flowers. Flowers, red, yellow and orange, sway in the breeze. It is a celestial wedding remarked a guest in India later that day, when she saw the photographs.
Outside the house, colorful sweets peep out of the windows of the red sweet boxes nestled under the cherry tree. Yellow mango burfi fudge, white milk balls with black crispy crusts soaking in sugar syrup, a caviar of fragrant, sweet chickpea boondi droplets, a cloud of white, milky sweetness, encased in a pillow of white rasgulla cheese sponge, – the sweets are for the friends of Silver Spoon.
Armed with bells and Bluetooth speakers that blast out celebratory music, masked friends of Silver Spoon and its owners drive by waving to the newly married couple who appear at the door, flanked by the groom’s parents. Standing six feet apart, some friends break into a spontaneous dance.
Resilience is the hallmark of the immigrant. In the face of all odds, pirouetting small businesses will spin to the post-corona economy’s dance-tune. Governor Gavin Newsome, Congressman Ro Khanna – you are invited to join the dance.
Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.