facing facts

Staten Island Immigrants Pivot to Mask-Making After Job Loss

Maria Abeja, 60, makes reusable masks at her Port Richmond work station.
Maria Abeja, 60, makes reusable masks at her Port Richmond work station. Photo: Clifford Michel/THE CITY

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Maria Abeja never had trouble finding work — whether as a housekeeper, gardener or nanny — in 17 years of living on Staten Island since arriving from Mexico.

But as the coronavirus pandemic began to overwhelm the city last month, her usual employers canceled appointments, leaving the 60-year-old undocumented immigrant without any income.

So Abeja reached out to her friend, Maribel Torres, a 47-year-old recently unemployed housecleaner, with a timely business proposition: Let’s make and sell reusable cloth face masks.

“I was bored because I had lost so much work,” Abeja told THE CITY Monday through a Spanish-language interpreter. “But I was excited because I had the materials and a machine” — a portable Singer sewing machine.

Three for $15

The two women brought the idea to their community job center, La Colmena, which connected them to MakerSpace NYC. The Stapleton-based nonprofit industrial workshop donated two industrial sewing machines and fabric.

The women divided the labor: Abeja would lead the mask-making, while Torres, a grammar school teacher in Mexico before she immigrated 15 years ago and settled in Staten Island, mapped out the logistics.

“If the federal government is not supporting our immigrant community, then we need to move past that and count on ourselves,” said Yesenia Mata, the center’s executive director.

Business is already booming. Abeja and Torres say they’ve fulfilled a little over 100 orders since launching April 15, selling masks for three for $15. They’ve got hundreds more orders lined up and have enlisted four more workers.

Sofia Reyes, left, and Benita Sanchez prepare and package masks on the second floor of La Colmena, a community job center in Port Richmond where the women work on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Sofia Reyes, left, and Benita Sanchez prepare and package masks on the second floor of La Colmena, a community job center in Port Richmond where the women work on Mondays and Wednesdays. Photo: Clifford Michel/THE CITY

Customers have a choice of two models, one with adjustable ties, in fabrics that range from simple blue-and-white checks to bright fluorescent patterns dotted with small flowers.

There’s a growing demand, though, for darker, solid-colored masks, which Abeja and Torres say are more popular with men — including some of their friends who work as day laborers.

“We work from when we wake up until, sometimes, 2 a.m. in the morning,” said Torres. “We’re doing it with all our ability and all our willingness.”

‘Leading the Way’

The two women are among the 738,000 undocumented New Yorkers left out of the U.S.’s massive one-shot stimulus bill, which provided $1,200 checks to many Americans as unemployment surges.

They’re also ineligible to receive unemployment insurance from the state. While California has promised to provide aid to undocumented workers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to do the same.

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations announced a $20 million fund that will assist 20,000 immigrants and their families with a one-time payment, ranging from $400 to $1,000, regardless of their immigration status.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrant workers are over-represented in industries that have been devastated by mass layoffs, such as construction, restaurants and hotels.

“We had multiple houses to clean at any given week,” said Torres. “Then all of a sudden many homeowners started cancelling our jobs because of social distancing. I got worried because we didn’t know how long this will last.”

The duo say they plan to make the reusable masks seven days a week with the help of new recruits Sofia Reyes and Benita Sánchez. They’ve also enlisted two men to pick up materials and deliver orders.

The four women are part of “Mujeres Liderando,” or Women Leading the Way,  a subdivision of La Colmena formed about six months ago by Torres to organize and advocate for the rights of immigrant domestic workers.

“The initial purpose of this group was to find and raise the standard of domestic work for women,” said Torres. “But due to everything that has happened we couldn’t go forward with that, so we started this project to support our needs.”

‘Not a Regular Job’

Last week, the women turned the second floor of the Port Richmond job center into a makeshift workspace. Abeja, who has the most experience sewing, sits at a desk marked “deputy director.”

They work at the center on Monday and Wednesday so customers can make curbside pickups. Abeja and Torres said the team sews well into the night at their homes.

A portion of what they create is being donated to frontline workers. And groups such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Staten Island’s Project Hospitality, which serves the borough’s homeless population and operates a food pantry, have put in bulk orders.

Masks awaiting sale at the workshop.
Masks awaiting sale at the workshop. Photo: Clifford Michel/THE CITY

According to Mata, the income doesn’t match what the women used to make as  domestic workers, but “it’s enough for them to get by.”

Abeja told THE CITY that despite the odd hours, she’s grateful that she wakes up every morning with the opportunity to work.

“When I sit at my machine and put the first piece of cloth, I think, in a spiritual way, ‘Lord, if we can make these masks and help someone who’s working outside and risking their lives, please guide us so we can make them right,’” Abeja said as she fought tears.

“This is not a regular job,” she added. “This is something we’re doing with all our heart because there’s a purpose behind it.”

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