For the World Trade Center cook, surviving 9/11 led to activism

WASHINGTON (AP) – Twenty years after September 11, Sekou Siby still feels the throes of the survivor’s guilt. A stove and dishwasher at the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center, Siby had traded jobs that day with a colleague who ended up dying in the terrorist attacks.

The tragedy sent Siby down a path he never imagined taking when he emigrated from Côte d’Ivoire in 1996: he made it his mission to advocate for higher wages and better working conditions. for restaurant workers – a role that has grown in importance as the restaurant industry has struggled more than most in the grip of the viral pandemic.

Siby, 56, is now president of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national interest group that emerged from the attacks.

The calamitous impact of the pandemic on restaurant workers has raised the profile of the group since last year’s widespread shutdowns initially cost 6 million restaurant workers their jobs – nearly half of the total. industry – their jobs. ROC United, using funds donated by foundations, responded by distributing $ 1.5 million in cash payments to approximately 5,000 laid-off workers.

Money has been a financial lifeline for people like Jazz Salm, 37, who lost her job as a waiter at a Sunrise, Florida, Chile, which closed in March 2020 when the pandemic broke out . The $ 225 she received from ROC United allowed her to pay her cell phone bill – her only internet connection, which she needed to apply for unemployment assistance.

Compounding its difficulties, Florida’s unemployment assistance system, like that of other states, was overwhelmed at the time.

“They were actually the first people to help me,” Salm said. “It was a month before seeing unemployment. They really saved my rear.

ROC United has helped keep members informed during last year’s debates over stimulus checks, extra unemployment assistance and other financial aids. Salm, along with about 11,000 other people, attended a Facebook Live event with Senator Elizabeth Warren in May 2020 to discuss the Massachusetts Democrat’s “Bill of Rights for Essential Workers” which called for a risk premium, equipment protection and paid time off for essential workers, which includes food service workers.

The group has also been active in researching changes in social policies, having marched in the name of a higher minimum wage and for the elimination of the peak federal minimum wage for restaurant waiters, which has remained at 2, $ 13 for 30 years.

All the while, Siby was motivated by memories of her 73 Windows on the World colleagues, many of whom were other immigrants, who died in the 9/11 attacks.

“Without September 11, there would have been no ROC United,” he said. “The fact that I was able to turn all the anger I had to support other people who were more desperate than me, that’s what got me through.”

Windows on the World was a unionized workplace, and after the 9/11 attacks its union donated to an informal group that helped unemployed former employees. In April 2002, this organization became ROC United, with Siby as its first member. He then worked as a community organizer for the organization, using his fluency in French and Spanish to connect with immigrants in New York City, before becoming executive director in 2017 and CEO last year.

Siby still keeps photos of the colleagues he lost that day. One of them shows Abdoul Karim Troare, another Ivorian immigrant who had been Siby’s roommate when he arrived in the United States in 1996.

Traoré helped Siby find her job as a cook and dishwasher at Windows on the World. And it was Troare’s wife, Hadidjatou Karamoko, who first alerted Siby to the September 11 attacks. She called to say that Traore was not answering his phone.

Traore had left that morning at 4 a.m. for his other job, delivering newspapers, before heading to the Twin Towers at 7:30 a.m. that morning.

“I had no idea this was the last time I was going to see him and hear his voice,” she said Wednesday during a virtual call hosted by ROC, her first public comments on her husband.

Another photo shows Siby and Isidro Ottenwalder, who had just obtained his citizenship six months before the attacks, allowing him to travel to his native Dominican Republic to get married before returning to New York.

And then there was Moises Rivas, who had asked Siby to take his Sunday shift at Windows on the World. Rivas, 29, who was performing with his band that Saturday night, didn’t want to work early in the morning, which often started at 5 a.m. In return, he offered to work for the Siby team this Tuesday, September 11. An Ecuadorian immigrant, he left behind a wife and two children.

In the years following September 11, ROC United began to engage with the victims of other tragedies. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the group established their first chapter outside of New York City. It now has 59 employees in 11 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Last month, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a $ 230,000 settlement with a restaurant chain, the Bartmann Group, which failed to pay the last paychecks owed to the laid-off workers, as well as overtime. ROC United had helped workers file a complaint and demonstrated outside one of the chain’s restaurants.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic poses a threat of an entirely different magnitude to restaurant workers in the United States. The industry still employs around 1 million fewer people than before the virus hit the U.S. economy in the spring of 2020.

Some restaurateurs are experimenting with software and automation who can replace waiters and cashiers. “Ghost kitchens” who prepare food in central locations for restaurants that deliver food but do not have actual storefronts, operate with far fewer employees than traditional restaurants. They started before the pandemic but have spread more widely since.

Siby, however, maintains an optimistic outlook for the industry. Automation can overhaul some jobs, he says, but will never completely replace humans’ ability to provide top-notch restaurant service. And ghost kitchens can offer new opportunities for entrepreneurs as well as chefs and delivery people.

Siby no longer wanted to work in restaurants after September 11. The sights and smells of a commercial kitchen brought back too many painful memories. But now her eldest daughter, Fanta, born three weeks after the bombings, is in her third year of nursing school and working at Starbucks after a previous job at Chipotle.

When asked what he would say to those battling the pandemic, Siby said: “The moment you think you’ve reached the bottom of your life, there is always a light to look forward to. This is where I am, compared to 20 years ago. The light is there, you just have to look for it.

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This story has been corrected to show that Restaurant Opportunities Center United distributed $ 1.5 million to the laid-off workers, not $ 10 million.

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