On the Sidelines: “A Better Life?” Podcast

Fenway Park in March 2021, prior to the start of the 2021 MLB season and the return of fans. Photo by Khari Thompson.

Covid-19 shut down or shortened most professional sports seasons in 2020 and even postponed the Olympics. What happened to all the people working behind the scenes at sports stadiums?

In the latest episode of A Better Life?, Producer Khari Thompson explores how the pandemic affected their livelihoods.

Maria and Jose Dominguez outside of their Rhode Island apartment. Maria and Jose both work at Gillette Stadium—Maria as a cleaner and Jose as a maintenance man—but lost their jobs briefly last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Franklin Souts.

“We went to work one day. The next day, they told us, ‘There’s no work.’”

Lilian San Juan, who works as a cleaner at Boston’s Fenway Park, remembers getting the news in March of 2020 that her job was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The same happened to Maria and Jose Dominguez, a wife and husband who work at Gillette Stadium, home to the New England Patriots and Revolution in Foxborough, Mass.

Covid’s impact on professional sports is widely known: the canceled games, shortened seasons and players missing games after testing positive for the coronavirus.

But people who work behind the scenes at sports stadiums—the maintenance people, security guards, cooks and cleaners—suffered as well.

Lillian San Juan, 52, has worked at Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox, for 15 years. She was out of work for three months during the height of the pandemic after Major League Baseball postponed the 2020 season. When she finally returned to work for the start of the shortened 2020 MLB season, the absence of fans in the stands meant reduced hours and less money.

The pandemic cost San Juan and her family thousands of dollars in lost wages last year.  Covid-19 took the lives of her brother, a cousin and several friends.

Jose Dominguez didn’t apply for unemployment benefits during his layoff from Gillette Stadium because he was scared. When the pandemic began Jose, 61, was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship and his Green Card had expired. In addition to the pandemic, anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise across the country.

“When I wanted to ask for help,” he said, “I was scared of being accused of fraud or of being ‘illegal.’”

Many maintenance workers at sports stadiums in Massachusetts are immigrants. According to the American Immigration Council, foreign-born workers account for 40 percent of people employed in cleaning and maintenance jobs in Massachusetts.

“We were fighting on both fronts for those workers that were continuing to work as essential workers as well as those that were unemployed,” said 32BJ SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera. Photo courtesy of Franklin Souts/32BJ SEIU.

Immigrants make up the majority of the 18,000 service workers represented by 32BJ SEIU, a local affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. That has put additional pressure on the union during the pandemic, according to 32BJ Vice President Roxana Rivera.

“We were fighting on both fronts for those workers that were continuing to work as essential workers as well as those that were unemployed,” she said.

Rivera says union leadership lobbied the state and federal government to implement proper safety protocols and provide personal protective equipment to create safer environments for workers. The union is also educating its members on the benefits of the Covid-19 vaccine. Hispanic and Black residents of Massachusetts are currently testing positive at higher rates than any other group according to the Massachusetts Department of Health.

The fact that many members of the union are not U.S. citizens creates additional challenges, according to Rivera.

“There are other things that impact our members outside of the workplace because of being immigrants,” Rivera said.

This year, with professional sports teams having resumed a normal schedule and fans back in the stands, Maria and Jose Dominguez and Lilian San Juan have returned to work.

Despite the setbacks she faced during the pandemic, San Juan is focused on the future. “We as immigrants, we don’t really have time to look backward,” she said. “We came to this country…we found work and we just try to go on every day because life is hard. So you just keep moving forward.”

A Better Life? and Feet in 2 Worlds are supported by the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, an anonymous donor, and readers like you.

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