Hundreds Halt Bridges to Renew Excluded Workers Fund, but an Uphill Battle Lies Ahead
A $2.1 billion program aimed at helping undocumented workers excluded from unemployment benefits was exhausted in two months. It’s still unclear whether Albany lawmakers will push to extend it.
Nearly a year after New York approved a historic fund for undocumented immigrants and other non-traditional workers shut out of unemployment benefits and pandemic-spurred government relief, workers are pushing state officials for more money for the program to aid tens of thousands who’d been left reeling.
On Tuesday morning, hundreds of Deliveristas on e-bikes and mopeds, domestic workers, taxi drivers, street vendors and construction workers marched over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge roadways simultaneously. They stopped traffic to call attention to their demand for $3 billion in additional money for the Excluded Workers Fund and the creation of a permanent unemployment insurance program.
The last two years have been especially “difficult” for Ernesta Galvez, a 40-year-old delivery worker from Corona, Queens. With her three children home and in online school for months, delivering food around Manhattan and family life became more challenging to balance, she told THE CITY.
“I had to be a mother and also had to work. I was at home with my kids doing homework, and whatever time I had left over I’d have to work,” she said in Spanish.
And Galvez is one of the lucky ones. She was among roughly 128,000 applicants who were able to access $2.1 billion in state resources before the fund ran dry in October, roughly two months after the state began accepting applications in August.
Applicants were eligible for two tiers of one-shot funding — up to $15,600 for those who were able to demonstrate loss of wages through extensive paperwork and records, or up to $3,200 for others.
By the time the fund had been depleted, some 95,000 applications were still pending, according to state Department of Labor spokesperson Aaron Cagwin.
‘We Honestly Need It’
Mary Alberto, who worked for a cleaning company tidying the Cinema Village movie theater near Union Square, woke up early to join the demonstration Tuesday morning. The 44-year-old Bronx woman lost her job when movie theaters shut down in the spring of 2020. Then the company she worked for went bust.
Although she was able to secure state assistance, Alberto told THE CITY it’s important to “keep fighting” for the funds to be replenished, which a coalition of groups is pushing to be included in the state budget due at the end of the month.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the message saying I was approved for the help,” she said in Spanish. “I was so happy. Talking about it makes me want to cry.”
Galvez said that with her savings depleted and behind on rent, the money she received from the state helped get her finances up to date and buy groceries.
“We have to keep fighting to support all of the people who haven’t received any money because we honestly need it,” she added.
But efforts to include any additional funding for the program is an uphill battle, according to Albany insiders.
Unlike last year, when the Excluded Workers Fund had political momentum and the worst of the pandemic was still fresh on everyone’s mind, the same energy hasn’t been replicated.
“We’ve hit roadblocks,” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), one of the architects of the fund. “It’s an election year, it’s the governor’s first year and it’s been very hard for us to make the case despite helping all of these approved folks catch up on their rents and be able to pay their medical bills.”
“That’s what I think many fail to see — it’s that that money is not even theirs. We would want the landlords to get paid. We would want hospitals to get their bills paid,” she added.
‘An Important Political Constituency’
Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include any additional funding for the Excluded Workers Fund in her January budget proposal, instead offering the Legislature a $2 billion pot of discretionary funding to use as they want.
That could pit several priorities against each other to compete for the money, such as the Excluded Workers Fund and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), a $2.7 billion program to keep struggling renters afloat that is reaching exhaustion.
“We shouldn’t be pitting these two groups, or these two programs, against each other as if it were competition,” said Emerita Torres, the vice president of Policy, Research and Advocacy at the Community Service Society of New York. “It’s a false choice, the way I see it. I think we should be funding both and we also need to be thinking about a more permanent solution on both ends.”
There’s also a political calculus to consider when discussing the Excluded Workers Fund, Torres noted.
Starting next year, roughly 800,000 legal permanent residents and those authorized to work in the United States will be allowed to vote in New York City municipal elections, a move that could reshape local politics and the balance of power in the five boroughs.
Not all were eligible for standard pandemic aid, and even among those who were, many have friends and family who found themselves locked out of assistance before the Excluded Workers Fund came along.
“This is an important political constituency,” Torres said. “And we need to be listening. We need to be serving them.”