Under-the-table workers at risk during a pandemic

By Rosie Leonard

Special to The Communitarian

Morgan Mongeon of South Hadley, Mass. checks the state website for the status of her unemployment claim. A personal trainer, the gym she works at has closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Under-the-table workers, however, cannot file for unemployment. Photo by Don Treeger, MCT Campus

March 2, I was sweeping the restaurant floors of a tea room in Delaware County after all the customers had left, when I heard the landline ring at the front desk and rushed to answer it.  

“Hello, this is the tea room,” I said.  “How may I help you?” 

The woman on the other end said she was calling in regards to a shower she had scheduled for Sunday, March 22, and was wondering if we would still be open. 

I politely laughed and informed her that we had no intentions of closing, and the shower would still take place, but I would have my manager talk to her later that week to confirm. 

“Why are people so worried,” I thought. “This will all blow over in a few weeks, and everything will be fine.” 

My, how two weeks can change a person’s view.

March 15, I entered work like any other day: I “clocked in,” — which, at my place of work, means saying hello to my boss — traded my coat for an apron, and began serving tables. 

The day was fairly busy for it being the first full week of government-issued warnings to stay home, but people did not seem to care. One lady, in particular, proudly proclaimed between raspy coughs that she had a fever just last night, but wouldn’t miss an outing for the world. 

Her ignorance enraged me, so I informed my boss that a customer is sick and infecting those surrounding her. She told me there was nothing they could do to make her leave, so I angrily swung open the back door to let in fresh air, put on gloves, and covered my face with a paper towel wad as I took her order. 

Sure, I looked ridiculous and over-reacted, but I wanted her to get the message. After leaving with her order, I overheard her mumble, “People are overreacting over this,” and her words only maddened me more. 

It is people like you, I thought to myself, that are going to prolong this and kill or endanger others. 

As customers filed out, I noticed my boss and manager worriedly speaking to each other at the front desk. Normally, I am included in important and private talks, but not this time, which made me jump to the worst-case scenario. 

Shortly after their talk ended, I noticed my boss’s face was a ghastly color as she motioned me toward her. Both she and my manager said that, as of today, the tea room would be closed for two weeks and reopen on March 30 in accordance with government guidelines. 

“I think that is for the best,” I said, not too concerned. “Everything should be back to normal by then. I am sure of it.” 

Later, my boss pulled me aside and said that even though the restaurant would be closed, she was going to have me come in and deep clean everything to prepare for when they would reopen. 

“How great,” I thought. “I am getting paid to clean for two weeks!” 

But, three days later, my boss informed me that, under the circumstances, they could not afford to pay me as well as bills and rent, and, as of that day, I would be out of work and would not be getting paid. 

“Before the covid-19 virus wreaked havoc on people and the economy, I was ill-informed of how little rights under-the-table workers have.”

– Rosie Leonard

I was only 14 when I applied to work at the tea room as an under-the-table worker, and have maintained that status ever since. It was not until the Covid-19 pandemic, however, that I learned what that term truly means and how it affects my life, as well as countless others in the same situation. 

When my boss gave me the news, my heart sank. I knew immediately that they would not reopen in two weeks, and I would most likely be out of a job and money for the forthcoming months. 

Panic set in but was quickly overcome by anger as I realized my co-workers, who were taxed employees, had the opportunity to apply for unemployment and get paid during this time, but not me. 

Despite being their only employee who shows up on time, is always willing to lend a hand and answer the phone, take a reservation, work the register, waitress, bus tables, and clean the floors, I was the only one being deprived of an income necessary to pay bills and school tuition. 

March 30 came and went in the blink of an eye, and neither my boss nor manager reached out to talk finances. They must know the toll this is taking on me, as they are aware I am an under-the-table employee who legally cannot apply for unemployment without facing serious legal matters.

This summer, I anticipated holding three jobs to earn enough money to pay for my last course at DCCC and obtain my associate’s degree in English, as well as give a down payment for Temple University but, under the current circumstances, I may not be able to achieve either.

Now I cannot go one day without being reminded of the financial burden that hangs so heavily over my shoulders, for when I log on to my Canvas account, I am coldly greeted by a bright yellow banner that reads: “You have an outstanding balance due. Pay Now.” 

The words eat me alive, as I know I cannot afford the $1,200 the school is asking for, and neither can my parents — especially during this time. 

Why is a community college so expensive? Didn’t I come here to save money? Because of the coronavirus, instead of saving, I am watching my debt accumulate before my groggy eyes every morning.  

Before the covid-19 virus wreaked havoc on people and the economy, I was ill-informed of how little rights under-the-table workers have. Although I have enjoyed the simplicity of leaving work with a cash payment in hand for the last seven years, I now loathe the very idea of under-the-table employment. 

I plan to seek justice for off-the-record employees whose income has been affected by the current pandemic and hope, in the coming months, colleges and universities will re-evaluate the cost of tuition and create more feasible and forgiving payment plans during these difficult times. 

Contact The Communitarian at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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