Logo Logo
Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Donate

The pandemic recession recovery isn’t reaching New York City mothers who face steep challenges in breaking back into the workforce — underscoring a growing child care crisis, a new report from a children’s advocacy group found. 

The report by the nonprofit Citizens’ Committee for Children, shared with The Fuller Project and THE CITY, found that 41% of 25- to 54-year-old women living with children in the New York metropolitan area were not working between April and July. 

That 41% was an improvement over the 50% of women who had reported being out of work at the peak of the pandemic economic shutdowns a year earlier. But male parents’ employment made a much bigger recovery, the report found, with the share of dads out of the workforce dropping from 45% to 24%.

“Women and women of color are really being very hard hit on many levels, like income loss, job loss and being pulled out of the workforce due to child care responsibilities,” said Jennifer March, the group’s executive director. “It seems like their recovery is slow right now.”

The Census numbers showed women who reported being Hispanic/Latino as the likeliest to report not working, at 55%. Among Black non-Hispanic women, 46% reported not working, while that figure was 39% Among Asian non-Hispanic women and 36% among white non-Hispanic women. 

Making Child Care Flexible

The Citizens Committee for Children culled the data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an effort by the Census Bureau to take demographic snapshots of the pandemic’s effect.

The New York City women surveyed between April 23 and July 5 were two and a half times more likely than men in the same age range to list child care as the primary reason for being out of the workforce, according to the analysis. 

For Yansy Henriquez of the Bronx, balancing the cost of child care with how much she earns at a local beauty salon has made her question her ability to stay in the workforce.  

To afford the nearly $800-a-month price tag of her baby’s day care during the pandemic, Henriquez cut down on internet, cable, her cell phone plan, clothing and even food. 

And despite being quickly accepted into affordable child care programs for her older children over a decade ago, she said she has never even received a response from city programs for her 1-year-old daughter. 

“Is there not a way to make child care more flexible for low-income moms?” Henriquez, 39, asked in Spanish. “Because I know that all those mothers who have child care, they’re going out looking for jobs and working. But if not, if they don’t have help, they can’t.”

‘People Want to Work’

While news articles abound on the challenges some employers have had in finding workers, child care experts and community organizers in New York City told THE CITY and The Fuller Project there is more to the story — especially for low-income mothers. 

“People do want to go to work,” said Mirtha Santana, chief program officer at RiseBoro, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that offers social services. “But when it becomes [a decision between] either working or having a better child care situation for your child, especially when that job is minimum wage, people make their choices.”

The pandemic temporarily shut down child care centers and job-placement sites where parents could get help signing up for child care, while making other support resources more difficult to access. 

Meanwhile, remote and hybrid school were still in place for most public school students during the span of the Census survey, requiring intensive family support for students learning at home.

“I’m surprised it’s not a larger number, to be honest with you,” said Dawn Mastoridis, Child Care Director at Queens Community House, a multi-service settlement house and community resource center, referring to the percentage of New York mothers who were not working at the end of the last school year. 

“Women have always historically been the primary caregivers who had to stay at home with children, and the process to get child care coverage is not an easy one,” said Mastoridis, who has helped shepherd parents through applying for subsidized child care. 

In addition to dealing with long wait times for resources like child care vouchers, the amount of paperwork required to apply for that help can be a huge barrier for parents, advocates say.

This is especially true for parents with non-traditional jobs offering little or no documentation of employment, or for parents dealing with language barriers, said Mastoridis.  

“It’s a challenge,” she added. “You have to have a lot of stamina and perseverance, and I could see why parents might give up on the process.” 

Bleeding Money to Stay Working

For mothers who can’t access city-run child care programs, paying out-of-pocket can be untenable in the long term.

Jaime-Jin Lewis, Founder and CEO of WiggleRoom, a tech firm that aims to increase access to child care, said some parents will bleed money simply to stay in the workforce.

“I worked with multiple women who paid more for child care than they took home just because they wanted to have a job,” said Lewis. “They thought that they would have more opportunities in the future even though they were quite literally losing money to go to work.”  

Tahvia Walter, a 29-year-old mother of two from Brownsville, Brooklyn, has been waiting for the right job to jump back into work. Low wage jobs just won’t cut it anymore, she said. 

When she first lost her last minimum-wage job in May, Walter said, she felt a “sigh of relief.”

She was able to help her 8-year-old daughter do better in remote schooling. Walter also didn’t have to worry about bringing COVID-19 back home to her family — or about whether she would be allowed to take time off to care for a sick or quarantining kid. 

She wishes that the city would do more to help mothers like her find positions “that are worth your while” — with benefits, flexibility around family life and a liveable wage.

Walter said she has turned down positions that didn’t offer work-family balance. 

“They [the employers] put it in plain terms: ‘We come before anything,’ and I will fight because nothing comes before my children,” she said. 

Federal, State Help on Horizon

Some see hope in the paid family leave and child care provisions in the Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill

The bill, which passed the House on Friday morning, earmarks $400 billion in child care spending on universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.  

Although the federal package would be a big step, State Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the chamber’s Committee on Children and Families, said more needs to be done to ensure all mothers can access child care. 

New York State Sen. Jabari Brisport
New York State Sen. Jabari Brisport speaks at a decarceration rally outside Rikers Island, Sept. 13, 2021. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

“It’s always good to have more money invested into the child care sector. I will say it’s definitely not as aggressive as it could be,” said Brisport, who said he’s committed to passing universal child care — with no income requirement — at the state level. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul echoed Brisport’s commitment to expanding access to child care during an online child care listening tour event hosted by the Brooklyn Democrat last Wednesday. 

“As I’m preparing my first budget, child care is a major priority,” said Hochul over Zoom. “I plan to work with [Brisport] to craft a strategy that is going to be transformative to address the needs of these families and the challenges of providers.” 

At the city level, Mayor-elect Eric Adams has pledged to expand access to child care. 

“Child care is a moral imperative, period,” Adams tweeted during his primary campaign while highlighting his plan to provide child care for “all who need it.” 

For her part, Walter finally “took that leap” and accepted a new government job she believes will allow her to balance family and work. She is due to start in January. 

“Going to work feels like you’re potentially sacrificing your health, the health of your kids,” she said. “So making a sacrifice like that to make minimum wage and pennies is not something that I think a lot of people are willing to do.”

Child care providers in buildings managed by the city’s public housing authority say despite years of fighting for better conditions, youngsters face unsanitary and at times unsafe conditions. 

And the providers, grappling with massive economic blows due to the pandemic, contend New York City Housing Authority has often left them to pick up the tab for necessary repairs. 

Dawn Heyward, deputy director of early childhood education at East Side House Settlement, whose program runs out of a Bronx NYCHA facility, said she’s been waiting five years for Housing Authority officials to provide air conditioning and heat to the center’s gymnasium. 

Her center had to pay out of pocket to ensure consistent heating in classrooms by installing its own dual air conditioning and heating units, Heyward said.

“NYCHA is the most challenging part of my job,” she added. “Not the child care, but making sure when the children walk in this building they’re safe.” 

Child care centers typically lack funds to pay for things like heating equipment, said Heyward, whose program is federally funded. 

Issues like lack of heat and hot water, mold, leaks and pest problems go beyond the child care centers in NYCHA facilities. Reporting from THE CITY has found widespread issues with lead and mold in New York City public housing units, in addition to poor ventilation that may have helped fuel the spread of COVID-19 in public housing. 

But some providers in the roughly 400 child care centers in NYCHA complexes say the city should pay special attention to the health risks posed to young children. 

Hot Water Harm

“School should be a place where you’re safe…and where health and safety should be a priority,” said Yvette Ho, education director at the Jacob Riis Early Childhood Center in the East Village. “But that’s not necessarily the case because we’re working with NYCHA as our landlord.”  

Ho said she’s seen clear examples of NYCHA mismanagement, including repeated failures to notify the child care center when leaks are scheduled to be fixed in the residential part of their building. This has led to random hot water shut-offs, resulting in the emergency closure of the center and parents having to take time off from work. 

A photo of two people with plastic bins standing in a room with a flooded floor
Flooding at Early Childhood Center at Jacob Riis Houses. (Courtesy of Chinese American Planning Council, Inc.)

Every year when the building switches on the heat, Ho said, the steam pipes burst without warning, sending potentially scalding water raining down into the center.

Last year, she said, the fire alarm system detected the rising pipe temperatures, allowing the center to avoid any injuries to children. But as winter approaches, she worries that children at the center, who are as young as 1, could be badly burned. 

“We’re putting Band-Aids over issues that could have been constantly maintained so that it doesn’t lead up to that — a steam pipe burst,” Ho said.

Massive Repairs Needed 

Fixing the problems at Jacob Riis and other facilities is likely to be expensive. In 2019, over $130 million in repairs were needed in day care centers in NYCHA buildings, Chalkbeat reported. 

“It’s no secret that there are capital issues at NYCHA,” said Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, a nonprofit that advocates for settlement houses throughout the city, including several with child care facilities. 

Moran said investments in public housing from the federal government, in the form of infrastructure legislation like the Build Back Better bill, are needed to alleviate NYCHA’s massive repair backlog. 

“When NYCHA is suffering, it has ripple effects to a variety of things in the community,” state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Children and Families and has been touring child care facilities throughout the state, told The Fuller Project and THE CITY. 

Conditions like lack of heat at the East Side House Settlement and broken light fixtures in other facilities Brisport visited indicate inadequate NYCHA funding, he said.  

Brisport believes the best way to ensure issues in NYCHA-managed day care centers are safe for young children and staff is to focus on federal legislative efforts. However, if the federal funding falls through, he says New York will have to make up a massive funding gap, estimated at $40 billion, elsewhere. 

A NYCHA spokesperson said staff conducts routine inspections of child care centers in NYCHA buildings, dispatches heating plant technicians and property management staff when repairs are necessary and communicates with resident leadership about planned outages.

NYCHA also said it has records of steam pipe leaks in 2018 and 2019 at the Jacob Riis child care center, that the steam pipes there have been repaired and replaced, and that it has added insulation around the pipes to mitigate future leaks. At the East Side House Settlement Mott Haven location, NYCHA says it is currently working with an outside HVAC contractor to address the issues with heating and air conditioning reported by Heyward.

‘A Systemic Problem’

Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams has said that if elected he would ask for tens of billions in federal funding to repair NYCHA facilities. In addition, Adams said he would create a monitoring program called “NYCHAstat,” to track spending and repairs status, according to Gotham Gazette

Adams has not called for additional New York City funding for NYCHA, according to the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development.  

At Jacob Riis, Ho says response time to maintenance calls has improved thanks to her team’s efforts over the years to build up relationships with local management. Still, much work remains to safeguard the children attending day care in NYCHA facilities. 
“This is like a much bigger problem than one child care facility in one development in New York that they can fix like that,” Ho said. “This is a systemic problem.”

What’s next for former New York City mayoral candidate and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley? She says she isn’t going to run for governor. But she still wants to see her plan to provide universal community care for children and older adults realized.

“There is no reason why our child care plan can’t become reality,” said Wiley, who came in third in the June Democratic mayoral primary won by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “It’s just a matter of political will.”

During the campaign, Wiley put forth an ambitious child and elder care platform, which would have given $5,000 to 100,000 “high need” families in New York City to help with the costs of providing care to children, older adults and other family members. Wiley’s plan, developed in deep consultation with community activists and other stakeholders, would have also created community care centers in every borough.  

“Even before COVID … families, and particularly women, were overwhelmingly bearing the burden of trying to figure out quality childcare in order to be able to work,” Wiley told THE CITY and The Fuller Project. “It’s not just about whether there is a [care] subsidy, which we need, but that there’s a place where people can go and that place is also in [the] community.”

In 2019, a city comptroller report found that half of New York’s community districts were infant care deserts. In 10 neighborhoods, including Bushwick in Brooklyn and Sunnyside in Queens, there were more than 10 times as many infants as child care slots. 


Related: ‘One Paycheck Away From Losing Everything’: Why The Child Care Crisis Is Especially Hard for Black Mothers


Wiley says she has spoken to Adams since the election, but that they’ve yet to discuss her child care platform, which would have drawn money from the NYPD’s budget, among other sources.

Adams, a former cop who has spoken out against the “defund the police” movement seeking to redistribute police department funding to social programs, has suggested he is open to using federal stimulus funds to increase the NYPD’s budget.  

“We should utilize the money to stabilize crime in the city,” Adams said at a news conference after his primary victory, according to the New York Post.

“That’s an area where Eric and I differ,” said Wiley, whose plan would have shifted $300 million from the NYPD and Department of Corrections budgets by reducing future hiring of police officers and corrections officers. That would have decreased the number of NYPD officers by 2,500 over two years.

‘Historic inflection point’

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with former mayoral candidate Maya Wiley. (Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

Adams has pledged universal child care — proposing tax breaks to building owners who provide free child care space, expanding a tax credit for low-income families, and opening community-based health and care centers in low-income neighborhoods.

Other candidates including runner-up Kathryn Garcia, who pledged to make child care free for parents with children 3 and under making less than $70,000 a year, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also promised investments in child care. Stringer’s plan would have invested $500 million in five years to tackle child care deserts and expanded access to the city’s child care voucher program for children 3 and under.

Adams is unlikely to divert the kind of money Wiley proposed shifting from policing into community-based care.

But All our Kin, a nonprofit focused on family child care providers, says the money already in the city’s budget and the federal child care block grants would give an Adams administration an “enormous” opportunity to improve New York’s care systems. 

“We’re looking at a historic inflection point for child care in New York City,” said Jessica Sager, All our Kin’s co-founder and CEO. “Eric Adams has said it is a moral imperative for us to provide universal child care. And we’re so excited about that.”

Adams’ campaign declined to comment for this story.

Wiley says she took a break after an “exhausting” campaign. However, after the general election in November, the former MSNBC contributor expects to help push for the ideas in her care proposal. “The child care proposal I put forward as a candidate for mayor was not just the Maya Wiley proposal,” Wiley said. “It really was about a plan and a vision for the future of the city and for our people.”

Last year, as the realities of the pandemic set in, Veronica Leal’s house-cleaning clients stopped calling and her household funds dissipated.

Leal made a grocery run to buy food in bulk, hoping to make it last by eating one meal a day. She told her teenage daughter to study hard and become a professional — like the people whose homes Leal cleaned, who were better able to weather the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Leal came to the United States at 16 from Mexico. Now 35, she lives in Washington Heights. As the lockdownwore on, Leal watched fellow immigrants in her Manhattan neighborhood grapple with the same reality: Despite their hard labor, they were not considered deserving of the economic security that their adopted country advertised.

“I love to work. I love to contribute to this country,” Leal, who had spent 12 hours a day working to support herself and her daughter, said through an interpreter. 

Immigrant women, including those from working-class backgrounds, have faced particular hardship during the pandemic. According to the Migration Policy Institute, they entered the pandemic with unemployment rates roughly similar to the rest of the United States, but saw a steep mid-year escalation in joblessness that peaked in May 2020: At 18.5%, their unemployment rate far exceeded the 13.5% rate among their U.S.-born women at the time.

Immigrant women’s unemployment remained higher than that of American-born men or women throughout the pandemic, falling below the other groups only in July 2021. But in August, job losses among immigrant women spiked again, likely due to the spread of the Delta variant, said Julia Gelatt, MPI’s senior policy analyst.

In New York City, the pandemic compounded existing economic insecurity across racial and gender lines. Grocery clerks, hospital staff, street vendors, domestic workers, nail technicians, cleaners and caregivers could not do their jobs remotely. So they either risked their health on the frontlines as essential workers — if they even had employment opportunities — or watched their sources of income dry up.

Many, especially undocumented New Yorkers, were excluded from the early rounds of federal stimulus aid. Anxieties about missing rent and bill payments bloomed. 

In the absence of comprehensive government safety nets to deliver them from economic distress, immigrant women like Leal banded together, adapted their skill sets and organized aid.

“For some communities, mutual support networks have always existed: It’s something that they had back home, and it’s something that they brought with them here,” said Ojiugo Uzoma, a Brooklyn-based organizer who serves African immigrant populations across the City. “So there’s a lot of women that participate in these circles where people contribute money each month and then the pot goes to one person each month. That continued.” But it wasn’t enough. Some women went further, bringing attention to the experiences of their community members and pushing for policies that would help their communities economically in the short-term — and empower them politically in the long run. Here are four stories of New York women fighting for their communities during the pandemic.

‘We Have Rights, Too’

Excluded workers demonstrate in Albany, New York on April 5, 2021. (Courtesy of Make The Road New York)

In March, hundreds of New Yorkers attended rallies demanding that the state government allocate funds to assist almost 300,000 excluded workers through the economic downturn. They marched across the city’s neighborhoods, occupied its bridges, and demonstrated at the state Capitol.

Their chants boomed, punctuated with the steady rhythm of the drum line. From time to time, local elected officials joined these demonstrations, making speeches in support.

In March, Leal and other workers launched a hunger strike as a part of the campaign. In the initial days, her head hurt and her body screamed for food, she said, but she held steady. “I said to myself that if I’m here for the others, then it would be good for everybody,” she said. “I wanted people to look and see what we go through — that we have rights, too.”

On April 6, the excluded workers saw victory: The state Legislature, as part of its $212 billion budget deal, put aside $2.1 billion put in for undocumented workers hit by COVID-19. New York was third after Maryland and California to authorize assistance to such immigrants, and allocated the largest amount.

Workers celebrated at the Washington Square Park arch upon hearing the news. “It is actually a recognition of undocumented workers,” Ana Ramirez, a member of New York Communities for Change and excluded worker who was on hunger strike for 23 days. “This is the future.”

Amid festivities, Leal’s daughter brought her chicken stew, rice, sweet potatoes and banana. As she broke her weeks-long fast, Leal cried. She felt grateful, she said —and important.

In August, advocates organized workshops, teaching immigrants how to apply for the assistance. Some also mounted pressure on the state to loosen the paperwork requirements for accessing the excluded workers fund, which they say remain burdensome for some potential applicants.

With the spread of the Delta variant, the road out of the pandemic remains unclear, but Leal is counting her blessings where she can.

“After COVID, what gives me pleasure is just to breathe,” she said. 

‘We’re Not Monolithic’

A photo of two women seated in the grass at an outdoor gathering
Rumana Sayeed, 47, at right, attends belated Eid al-Fitr celebrations organized by Laal on May 22, 2021. (Tanvi Misra/The Fuller Project)

On a humid day in late May, a group of women in resplendent saris and salwars sat in loose circles, gold bangles jangling as they spooned biryani into their mouths. It was a belated Eid celebration, and the freshly vaccinated Bengali women of The Bronx’s Norwood neighborhood were glad to be outside together. 

Among them was Rumana Sayeed, 47, whose otherwise rosy view of her world “turned sideways” when the pandemic hit, she said. Her husband, an Uber driver, wasn’t getting a lot of rides, and her 13-year-old was sent home from school as the shutdown started.

For the first two months, no money came in. Even though the couple was, as green card holders, eligible for unemployment benefits, they didn’t know how to apply online because of their lack of tech savvy.

So, they stayed home, washing their hands and disinfecting their surroundings obsessively. They watched Netflix to stave off boredom. Their basement apartment started feeling “like a dungeon,” Sayeed said, but they did not want to take any chances with the virus.

The May get-together was organized by Laal, a community organization serving Bengali women in the area — a population often ignored by local lawmakers, said Sanjana Khan, Laal’s co-founder and executive director. Like Sayeed, many are green card holders who cannot vote.

A photo of women on a blanket eating at an outdoor gathering
A photo of a woman at selecting food at an outdoor gathering
A photo of women serving themselves food at an outdoor gathering
Laal Eid al-Fitr celebrations in Norwood, the Bronx on May 22, 2021. (Photos: Tanvi Misra/The Fuller Project)

Some who are U.S. citizens often don’t cast ballots, Khan said, because they are not encouraged to participate in elections and other civic activities.

Even some of the local efforts to assist Bronx residents with food during the pandemic overlooked the particular needs of her community. “We’re not monolithic,” Khan said. “They’re looking for Halal food, they’re looking for specific vegetables, hence why we did so much food pantry distribution out of the Bengali grocery store.”

Sayeed earned her first U.S. paycheck after helping out on a food delivery shift with Laal during the pandemic — it was recognition that her labor mattered, Khan said. “When you talk about women being excluded, I also think about it in a larger context of brown, Black, Latinx and Indigenous women’s domestic labor,” Khan said. “They don’t have that data to show they’re employed… but they’re constantly working.”

While many people have felt isolated during the pandemic, Sayeed said her work with Laal helped her become deeply enmeshed in the community she joined four years ago after coming to America. She taught others English and was even designated as the community representative during an election town hall earlier this year, when she questioned a local City Council candidate about housing policies.

Now, Khan said Sayeed and other women within her community have their eyes set on a bill that would legalize voting for non-citizens in local elections. Support for the legislation spans many Council members, but stops at Mayor Bill de Blasio who recently told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he did not believe the bill was legal to enact at the city level. Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, however, has expressed his support for the legislation.

Non-citizens have a long history of voting at the local level in the United States. While New York was one of the first states to ban noncitizen voting in the 19th century, some elected officials have been surfacing legislation to legalize it again since the mid-1990s — in vain. 

Should the legislation be signed into law this time around, it would grant an estimated one million city residents — green card holders and others with legal status who can work and pay taxes — a chance to weigh in on local policies that shape their lives. “They have seen themselves be ignored,” Khan said. “After doing the work and bearing the brunt of this pandemic? It’s like, ‘No, this has to change.’”

‘We Have to Survive’

A photo of a woman posing with a bird in her hands
Goma Yonjan with her pet pigeon, Pari, at her Woodside apartment on Sept. 2, 2021. (Tanvi Misra/The Fuller Project)

During the first few months of the pandemic, the normally vibrant and noisy end of Woodside, Queens, was blanketed by ominous silence. Gone were the squeals of kids pouring out of Taekwondo class, the screech of sneakers on the Frank D. O’Connor playground, and the bhajans ringing out from the Satya Narayan Mandi Hindu temple.

Instead, sirens blared through the neighborhood, as ambulances shuttled patients sick with COVID-19 to Elmhurst Hospital.

By June 2021, the neighborhood called the “epicenter” of the pandemic seemed as if it was finally waking up, though the inequalities the crisis had exacerbated remained stark.

A Center for Migration Studies paper found that immigrants in areas such as Jackson Heights in Queens or Sunset Park in Brooklyn were most at risk for poor health outcomes due to a mix of factors. Among them: overcrowded housing conditions, limited English proficiency, barriers to health care and lower levels of education.

At least half of New York’s immigrant residents lack health insurance, with the disparities much starker for noncitizens compared to naturalized citizens. COVID-19 mortality rates, too, were higher in Black, Asian, and Hispanic neighborhoods across the City, which included foreign-born residents, a separate analysis found.

By September, 67% of all Queens residents had been vaccinated, according to New York City’s Citywide Immunization Registry. But in immigrant-rich neighborhoods around Elmhurst, residents continued to wear masks even when they went outside.

Goma Yonjan, a nail salon worker and Woodside resident, explained why she prefered to keep her mask handy despite being vaccinated. “Still, something inside worries,” she said. 

In Yonjan’s 15-plus years in New York, she had come a long way from the uncertain newlywed she was when she first arrived from Nepal, when she would cry when teased about her lack of English skills and settled for $30 for an entire day of salon work.

A photo of a woman sitting on a couch releasing a bird
(Tanvi Misra/The Fuller Project)

Now, she is something of a “social butterfly,” said Prarthana Gurung, a campaigns and communications manager at Adhikaar, an organization that serves the local Nepali-speaking community.

Over the years, Yonjan has organized her fellow salon workers to demand better treatment and fairer wages. She has also come to chair several cultural and ethnic committees in the area, and even made remarks at City Hall in 2013 about her experience as a nail salon worker in a bid for better working conditions.

But when the pandemic started, Yonjan’s activism and social life came to an abrupt halt. The nail salon she worked at for 17 years closed up shop. She stopped leaving her home, and fear, uncertainty, and isolation chipped away at her mental health.

“Oh my God, [it] felt like depression,” she said.

Then, deaths in the community started mounting: The passing of Anil Subba, a Nepali Uber driver whose wife was also a salon worker, was one of the first fatalities Yonjan found out about through Facebook.

A year later, even as things improved in the rest of the city, Yonjan felt an aftershock of trauma as Delta variant of the virus ripped through Nepal, infecting her sister and nephew there. Now that the Delta had arrived in the United States, fear resurfaced in the neighborhood.

“For us, the impact of this is something we’ll be looking at for years to come,” Gurung said. “There’s definitely irreversible effects on our community.”

To cope, Yonjan, 57, adapted the ways in which she carried out her activism: She helped organize food donation drives, raised funds to buy protective gear for members of her community, and kept organizing nail salon workers — over Zoom. “If anything, the pandemic just strengthened my resolve and dedication, and it reminded me why I do this work,” she said.

In July, Yonjan led a march from her neighborhood to Manhattan Bridge, singing songs into a loudspeaker, and demanding a path for citizenship Temporary Protected Status holders like herself — immigrants from certain designated countries, including Nepal, who fled natural disaster or conflict. Adhikaar is now pushing for the Senate Democrats to override objections by the Senate parliamentarian and include a pathway to citizenship for immigrant groups with temporary protections in a sweeping spending legislation currently being hammered out in Congress.

It was on brand for Yonjan, who is known in her community for her beautiful voice, to turn to her music and activism to cope with ongoing grief and loss.

“I try to motivate myself,” she said. “Life goes on, whatever happens, we have to survive.”

A Deep Sense of Loss

A close up portrait photo of a woman wearing glasses
Photographer and visual artist Arlette Cepeda at Silver Lake Park in Staten Island on Aug. 21, 2021. (Tanvi Misra/The Fuller Project)

Staten Island is often painted as an outlier in the City — a red borough where blue collar white voters play an outsized role in the cultural conversation and political matters. But the borough is also home to a diverse community of immigrants from Mexico, Sri Lanka, West Africa and other countries: Its north shore is primarily Black and Hispanic, and many Asian New Yorkers live in the northeast and the mid-island sections.

Arlette Cepeda, who was born in the United States and grew up in the Dominican Republic, has resided in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island since 2012. A visual artist and photographer, Cepeda is interviewing friends, neighbors and colleagues about their experiences during the pandemic for a photo-documentary project.

She applied for the local grant to fund the project in 2020, and was notified earlier this year that she received it. So far, she has interviewed 29 people of different ages and backgrounds. The common thread: Their stories all involve “a deep sense of loss at all levels,” she said, “loss of yourself, of your identity; loss of loved ones.”

In October, her portraits and conversation snippets will be displayed at the two locations of La Colmena, an organization that works with day laborers, domestic workers and other low-wage earners in Staten Island, where Cepeda started work as deputy director earlier this year.

A black-and-white photo of a woman seated on a stoop, surrounded by family
Photo of the Gonzalez family, as they share their experiences with COVID-19 with Arlette Cepeda for her photography project. (Courtesy of Arlette Cepeda)

Cepeda’s subjects are at the margin of the margins — metaphorically and geographically — and are often left out of the larger conversations at the City level, even among immigrants themselves.

“I felt that it was important to document the immigrant experience at a time in our lives that was historic, that was unique, that would have so much long term impact,” she said.

She’s been struck most by the story of a neighbor who lost her father. After the man’s wife was killed in front of the family back in Mexico, he came to America and made money collecting cans. He brought his kids with him and raised them as a single father.

He built a house for them back in Mexico, so they could one day return and live together as a family in their homeland, only to die of COVID-19 earlier this year. His family is now grappling with the question: What was it all for?

The story has got Cepeda thinking about her own immigrant journey — its end purpose, and all that we lose in pursuit of our dreams. 

“This is the immigrant dilemma, right? ‘I’m gonna work hard to return,’ or ‘I’m gonna work hard to build a home,’” Cepeda said. “And we leave our souls behind working for that dream and — sometimes, it never happens.”

Last month, Denise Williams, a 29-year-old Black mother of two, went to Queens Hospital Center seeking treatment for postpartum depression. Just 48 hours later, Williams’ family learned she had died — but why still isn’t clear.

Family, friends, and advocates demanded answers Tuesday from the city-run hospital, where more than a dozen people gathered to call attention to the case.

“We don’t want condolences, we want answers,” said Charlene Magee, Williams’ maternal aunt. “It’s been three weeks, and [my sister] has no idea what happened to her child.”

Two days after Williams checked into Queens Hospital, a hospital staffer called Williams’ mother, Linda Magee, on Aug. 30 to say an autopsy was going to be performed on Williams, according to Charlene Magee.

That marked the first communication from the hospital indicating that Williams had died, her family said.

It took another half hour for another staff member to call Linda Magee to say that Williams was dead, said Charlene Magee. Nearly a month has passed, and the family says the hospital still hasn’t provided an official cause of death.

Williams left behind two young daughters, an 8-week-old and a 3-year-old.

“NYC Health + Hospitals/Queens has expressed our deepest condolences to the family of the deceased,” the city public hospitals corporation said in a statement. “We are committed to quality, equitable and safe care for every patient and will continue to work with the family as appropriate.”

‘Where is the Justice?’

Protesters also spoke about the larger issue of Black maternal mortality, postpartum depression, and the unequal treatment of Black women in health care.

In New York City, Black women are eight times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts.

Black women in New York are also more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, and studies have shown that on average women of color are less likely to receive treatment for disorders like PPD.

Brian McIntyre, whose partner, Amber Rose Isaac, died after giving birth via emergency C-section at Montefiore Medical Center in the The Bronx last year, attended Tuesday’s protest and spoke out in solidarity with Williams’ family.

A photo of a man posing for a picture

Bruce McIntyre, whose partner, Amber Rose Isaac, died during childbirth, attended a protest for Denise Williams after the mother died at Queens Hospital while suffering from postpartum depression. (Jessie Washington/The Fuller Project via THE CITY)

“We are facing a public health crisis,” he said. “Where is the accountability? Where is the justice?”

Assembly members Ron Kim and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas also lent their voices to the protest.

“Our health system is racist and has specifically harmed Black women,” said Gonzalez-Rojas (D-Queens). She then led the crowd in a “say her name” call and response chant, often used by activists to highlight the death of Black women.

“We are facing a public health crisis,” he said. “Where is the accountability? Where is the justice?”

Assembly members Ron Kim and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas also lent their voices to the protest.

“Our health system is racist and has specifically harmed Black women,” said Gonzalez-Rojas (D-Queens). She then led the crowd in a “say her name” call and response chant, often used by activists to highlight the death of Black women.

A Family’s Vow

Katy Cecen, a midwife and former natal intensive care unit nurse, said that lack of adequate funding to public facilities like Queens Hospital, which disproportionately treat Black patients, is a large part of the maternity health crisis.

According to Charlene Magee, Williams and her mother had requested that she go to another local hospital they felt was safer, but paramedics denied their request.

A photo of a pink poster with photos of a woman and her family

Photos of Denise Williams. (Jessie Washington/The Fuller Project via THE CITY)

In New York City, studies have shown that the differences in where Black and white women give birth may account for 47% of the disparities in severe but non-fatal maternal outcomes.

Charlene Magee said that she and the rest of Williams’ family won’t stop fighting for the families of Black women who have died in New York City hospitals.

“We don’t want Denise to be ignored,” Magee said. “We are going to be out here every day. You’re going to hear from our family.”

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women