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Vaccines Are Available to Street Vendors, But Access Remains a Challenge

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Identification and proof of industry could be hard for some street food workers

Aaron Aaron Sonderleiter, right, and Chris Rutherford, center, talk with Erin Glenn as they eat foo Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

Last week, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health announced that food workers throughout the nation’s largest county would be eligible to receive priority for the COVID-19 vaccine. This designated tier includes restaurant employees, grocery store workers, retail employees where any food or beverages are served, delivery drivers, food distribution workers, and agricultural workers (a full list is here).

Also included in the 1B vaccination group are LA’s beloved street food vendors, the eloteros, taqueros, bacon-wrapped hot dog merchants, or anyone who serves food from a cart or out of their home — though actually proving eligibility for these workers to be able to receive the vaccines could be challenging. Many vendors and workers operate outside of traditional pay structures and without licensing or permits, in part because of limited access and guidance from public health officials that allow those businesses to be set up legally. The same is true for unlicensed home restaurant operators without proper business or public health licensing.

Eater LA contacted LA’s public health department to ask about street vendor eligibility, and a spokesperson noted that street vendors would indeed fall under the tier 1B vaccine priority bracket, though they may be directed to county or city special clinics setup for food and agricultural workers through a clinical provider.

As of now LA County street vendors must bring all three of the following:

  • Photo identification (does not need to be government issued.
  • Proof that you live and work in LA County (if other docs do not include work/home address, there are other acceptable items).
  • Proof that you are a food or agricultural worker.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown legalized street vending in 2018, but by mid-2020 fewer than 400 food and non-food permits were approved. Approximately 50,000 street vendors operate within Los Angeles, and 10,000 sell food mostly on a cash basis without a business license. Many are undocumented, refugees, seniors, and 80 percent are women of color.

Permit costs can be restrictive for LA’s street vendors, who earn an average of $10,000 per year in revenue. Street vendor licenses cost over $500 to start, along with business vending permits. Vendors can be cited for serving customers without a permit, and the fines range anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per infraction. To its credit, the Los Angeles City Council approved the COVID-19 Street Vending Recovery Fund last September, where street vendors applied for grants up to $5,000 to pay for protective gear, permit applications, and supplies to help them operate legally and comply with local laws and safety requirements.

While vaccination officials will not be checking for citizenship status, getting the right message out to the street vending community is key. Throughout 2020, for example, mixed messages from from city officials were frequent. First the city council temporarily banned nearly all street vendors, as mayor Eric Garcetti’s office and the council acted quickly to maintain control of the rapidly spreading and new coronavirus. In June, a Garcetti spokesperson stated the mayor’s office would work with sidewalk vendors to “ease the burdens that vendors face,” even including fully-licensed vendors (a minuscule fraction of the total vendor population) only three months after the council passed an ordinance that called for increased enforcement from the Bureau of Street Services and the LAPD.

California does provide identification for undocumented workers. Others obtain a tax identification number or, on occasion, a fraudulent social security number for employment. But many do not have access to any forms of identification at all, which is still required to receive the vaccine.

Officials also stated that attestation forms are also acceptable at vaccination sites. Attestation letters are written or singed documents that can confirm employment or residency, and can be filled out by workers themselves. Street vendors operate largely as independent workers/small business owners, so further proof may be difficult to work up.

One food worker (who wishes to remain anonymous) tells Eater that they believe there are inconsistencies with confirming eligibility depending on the vaccine site. He observed through associates that Cal State Los Angeles was not checking proof of industry forms, while the Forum site was very strict, and the Los Angeles City College site fell somewhere between the two. Ultimately, street food vendors my find a mixed bag when it comes to successfully signing up for a tier 1B vaccine right now, depending on their vaccination site and their existing paperwork — and that’s if they can sign up for a hard-to-come-by slot at all.