Every morning around 10 a.m. Juan Cornejo makes the commute from Hamilton Heights to the Upper East Side in Manhattan where he waits for his Nuts 4 Nuts cart to be delivered to start his nine-hour shift. He settles in his spot on Lexington Avenue and 86 Street. He then begins to cook honey-roasted almonds, peanuts and cashews with the sweet nutty aroma traveling down the street, hopefully enticing New Yorkers to make a purchase. Cornejo has been happily working this job for the past two decades, but now at age 65, he is beginning to reevaluate, especially with the winter months ahead.
There are more than 20,000 street vendors in NYC including those selling flowers, hot dogs and souvenirs aimed at tourists — almost anything you can imagine, including knockoff designer purses, can be found. These street vendors are the backbone of the hustle and bustle that defines New York. However, during the winter, many of these street vendors must work outside in below-freezing temperatures, and rough conditions including rain, sleet and snow. Sometimes the weather is so bad that they simply can’t work, and as a result lose valuable income. This, coupled with the lack of policies that protect street vendors — especially those who are undocumented — make street vending a grinding job to do, day in and day out.
The Street Vendor Project’s deputy director, Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, says that street vending has not slowed during the winter months, particularly post-peak pandemic.
“Due to the way vendors were essentially excluded from most economic relief during the pandemic, coupled with the general lack of spending, we’re seeing vendors continue working during the winter time,” she says. “Winter is generally a tough season for people to be working outdoors. It’s cold, windy and for many vendors it is a difficult time to make any income when they are out at all hours of the day.”
Cornejo has been a street vendor since he came to the United States from Santiago, Chile in 2000; it was the easiest job he could find. While Cornejo likes that he gets to meet people on the job and that it’s different everyday, being on the street is not easy, especially at his age.
“I really am working on the street. Some vendors work in the wintertime, but they aren’t really on the street because they’re inside a truck. I truly am a street vendor, I have to absorb all the temperatures, the wind, rain, anything that might fall,” he says. “You have to have a lot of will to work in order to tolerate everything.”
Cornejo’s Nuts 4 Nuts cart is his only source of income, earning him roughly $100 a day, which he works from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for. He aims to work seven days a week, but each week is different. Sometimes, when the weather is too harsh, Cornejo can’t bring the cart out at all. When the weather gets too harsh to bring the cart out because of snow or rain, Cornejo cannot work. Throughout the rest of the year, he lives under his means, so that when there is a week he can’t work, he can still get by. When he was younger, he was able to work for much longer and save much more but now, his age is catching up to him.
“Sometimes I get a little nervous, I never know how far I’ll be able to keep on working,” he adds.
But due to his immigration status, Cornejo has no choice but to keep working. Even though he pays taxes, he will not be able to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.
Monamie Belgadi, who works on 87 Street and Lexington Avenue, immigrated to NYC in Morocco about 14 years ago and has been a street vendor ever since. Working outside for so many years have taken a toll on his body.
“I’m thinking of changing my job because of my health, I get sick. I cannot stand any longer. My doctor says ‘Your job is too hard.’ I stand for 12, 15 hours a day, six days a week. [My doctor] tells me I need to stop doing that,” he says.
Each winter, he says business at his fruit stand decreases by about 30%. If the weather falls below 30 degrees, he must close down the stand or else the fruit will freeze. There are some days where the stand must close for two or three days a week because of the weather, during which he has no other way of making money. Belgadi does not own the fruit stand, and his employers pay him a flat rate of $12 an hour, in cash. His pay is cut to about $10 an hour during the wintertime when sales go down.
“They say I’m not making enough money [for them]. But they still make money — not like summer or spring — but they make something. When the money comes down, they cut my salary too. They are smart,” he says.
According to the NYC Human Rights Law, undocumented workers like Belgadi are entitled to a fair wage, but they must enforce it with their employers. Although Belgadi is aware he is not being paid the minimum wage of $15 an hour, he still chooses to stay working at the fruit stand due to his immigration status.
Apart from having to tolerate low wages and frigid temperatures, vendors like Cornejo are at risk of getting fined up to $1000 — or even arrested — for vending without a license. They, along with 20,000 other vendors who do not have a General Vendor license, have no way of legalizing their work. There are only 853 of these licenses in circulation in all of NYC. New legislation went into effect earlier this year, which makes an additional 400 licenses available each year for the next 10 years.
If you want to value the work street vendors do, Kaufman-Gutierrez says it’s important to support and buy from vendors during this season now more than ever. One tip: always carry a little bit of cash. Not all vendors have e-payment systems. With cash you can also give them a tip that will go directly to their pockets. She also says not to underestimate street vendors, as they are the eyes on the street.
“Street vendors are the folks who always know. If you want to know anything about a neighborhood, always speak to a street vendor. They are a part of what keeps our neighborhoods safe, because they are out and working,” she says. “Sometimes people choose to become street vendors because they are ineligible for other jobs due to their immigration status, but many choose to be vendors because they like to have that one-on-one relationship with customers and neighbors.”
And despite the sometimes-grueling conditions, both Cornejo and Belgadi can find a bright side to their work.
“A person who works on the street has to like working on the street. I work on the street because I like it. I know I must sacrifice a lot but I already got used to it. Here, I get to work alone and no one tells me what to do,” Cornejo says. “I put a lot of care in my work and I wish people valued it more.”