Street vendors hold holiday rally to protest high fines, call on NYS Legislature to legalize Street Vending Industry

Street vendors rally on steps of St. Mark’s Church
Street vendors rally on the steps of St. Mark’s Church.
Photo by Adrian Childress

Over 50 street vendors, advocates and elected officials with the NYC Street Vendor Justice Coalition gathered on the steps of Saint Mark’s Church in Manhattan Tuesday evening to honor the work of street vendor essential workers, sharing champurrado while decorating a Christmas tree with the hundreds of tickets street vendors have received in the past year alone for lack of business licensing.

Protestors highlighted how vendors fought hard to create the Excluded Workers Fund and gain access to small business grants, only to now use these relief funds to pay fines for vending. 

“In the midst of the holiday season during an ongoing pandemic, vendors each day continue to be penalized by city agencies for not having a legal pathway to work, despite their role as essential workers ensuring fresh, affordable produce, merchandise and meals are accessible citywide,” said the NYC Street Vendor Justice Coalition in a statement. 

It said speakers urged the New York State Legislature to pass S1175A | A5081A, legislation sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas to bring vendors into the formalized economy and decriminalize the street vending industry. 

Organizations present included Workers Justice Project, Make the Road New York, CAIR NY, Save Our Storefronts, Brandworkers, Welcome to Chinatown, Transportation Alternatives and the Street Vendor Project. 

Street vendor Lucio Gonzalez, member of the Street Vendor Project from Fordham Road in the Bronx, said he became a street vendor at the beginning of the pandemic after losing her job at a restaurant. 

“I started a street vending business, because it’s honest work, and I can use my skills as a cook to make a successful business,” he said. “I never thought I’d receive $2,050 in fines for selling tacos, when I tried to get a permit, but they won’t let me. 

“Now, I have to use my relief from the Excluded Workers Fund, which was supposed to help me pay rent, debts and invest in my business, to pay fines,” Gonzalez continued. 

NYC Street Vendor Justice Coalition said vendors contribute millions of dollars in benefits to the city and state annually, “but it remains nearly impossible to operate legally due to an arbitrary, decades-old cap on the number of vending licenses available.

“The waitlist for licenses is so long it has been closed for over a decade,” it said. “Meanwhile, vendors who try to support their families by working without licenses are subject to harassment, punitive fines and property confiscation, forced to spend hard-fought COVID relief on paying fines to the city,” the Coalition said. 

Photo by Adrian Childress

It said proposed state legislation S1175A and A5081A, to formalize the industry, will accomplish three goals: Ensure that street vending compliance and regulatory oversight are conducted by a civilian agency; formalize the street vending industry, creating a pathway to entrepreneurship by removing the currently insurmountable barrier to entry to the industry, so that vendors who wish to do business in accordance with the law – including paying taxes, following city rules and regulations, completing all trainings – will be able to obtain permits to operate their business; and expunge the records of any street vendor who may have previously received a misdemeanor for street vending. 

“After a long fight, many street vendors were finally able to access small business grants, unemployment, and support from the Excluded Workers Fund, only to have to give that money right back to cover punitive fines issued by the city,” said Ramos, Senate sponsor of the legislation.

“Street vendors are part of the entrepreneurial backbone of our local economies, and we cannot in good faith talk about a just recovery for our state without prioritizing S1175 and the legalization of street vending in 2022,” she added. 

NYC Street Vendor Justice Coalition said, currently, there are only 853 total licenses for merchandise vendors, adding that, by 2032, there will be 9,000 supervisory licenses available for mobile food vendors. 

“The waitlist for each type of license has thousands of names,” it said. “In fact, the waitlist is so long it has been closed since 2007. And vendors have been forced to either rent a permit from existing permit-holders on an underground market for up to $25,000, or vend without a permit, facing $1,000 fines and property confiscation.” 

Epstein noted that street vendors are small business owners. 

“Just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they provide essential goods to their communities and make up the fabric of our neighborhoods,” he said. “For too long, vendors have been subject to an unfair cap on licenses, inflating license prices and forcing these businesses––overwhelmingly owned by immigrant New Yorkers––into the shadows. 

“It’s time we lift the caps, decriminalize street vending and create a system of regulation that supports all small businesses in our city,” Epstein added. 

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