Undocumented migrants claim unemployment benefits in New York

Each month, nearly 100 people connect to a hotline to learn about the Excluded Workers Fund, the state program targeting undocumented workers and others who have been unable to obtain government assistance in the process. the middle of the pandemic.

“It doesn’t stop,” said Diana Sanchez of Catholic Charities Community Services of the number of calls the hotline has received from locations in the Hudson Valley. State legislators and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the fund in March to help workers who couldn’t get unemployment benefits or government stimulus packages during the coronavirus pandemic.

The problem? The $ 2.1 billion set aside for the fund had been allocated shortly after it was made available. But the need for the new program has not ceased, and neither has the hotline calls.

So, each month, Sanchez said that she and other members of staff let callers know that the one-time payment of up to $ 15,600 is gone, money they would likely use for necessities like paying rent and paying. the food.

“You feel really bad because it’s not up to you,” Sanchez said, noting that there isn’t much that nonprofits can do.

But the brief window during which undocumented workers could access benefits equivalent to unemployment or stimulus payments from the federal government highlighted how people who would likely be impoverished could be caught by the safety net, according to the reporters. immigration advocates.

Now they want the program to be replenished, adding an additional $ 3 billion.

And, statewide, advocates and community organizers are asking for more. They want undocumented workers, salaried workers and low-paid self-employed people – groups traditionally excluded from unemployment insurance – to be able to receive traditional unemployment benefits.

RELATED: New York’s $ 2.1 billion excluded workers’ fund will soon run out. Is it going to be boosted?

Political will to expand the program

Janet Fry with the Community Resource Center in Mamaroneck and Diana Sanchez, with Catholic Charities Community Services, are pictured after a rally held at Don Bosco Place in Port Chester on January 6, 2022 to kick off the "Justice bus".  The bus will travel throughout New York State to provide information on the Excluded Workers Fund, to connect with day laborers and workers from different industries, to educate and empower them on labor rights, health and security during the pandemic, salary theft and other issues they may encounter.  The bus is sponsored by the Westchester Labor Alliance and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

But these objectives come up against political realities.

Reelection candidate Governor Kathy Hochul has pushed for the $ 2.1 billion fund to be spent, but reported last fall that the money was not in the budget to replenish the fund. Additionally, program support was not listed in its State of the State Book, where it presented its 2022 budget program.

Asked about the program, Hochul spokesperson Jim Urso said Thursday: “With the session underway, the governor will continue to work with lawmakers, community and advocacy partners to support immigrant communities and Vulnerable New Yorkers. ”

In response to the program not being mentioned in the governor’s budget priorities, Fund Excluded Workers Coalition coordinator Bianca Guerrero said the state cannot continue to deny the same support to workers who are the lifeblood of New York’s economy.

“The excluded workers called on Governor Hochul to close the gaps in our safety net once and for all. Instead, they were given bandages, ”she said, referring to an immigrant employment program that Hochul announced in its budget program.

“During the pandemic, unemployment insurance saved millions of Americans from going hungry and losing their homes,” she added.

Impact of the Excluded Workers Fund

A protest for the Excluded Workers Fund in New York in April.  5. 2021.

Launched amid the economic fallout from the pandemic last year, the Excluded Workers Fund was the largest of its kind in the country, but faced severe criticism from Republican leaders, with some citing ” philosophical problems posed by the creation of a direct payment system for non-citizens’ in the legislation to repeal the original fund.

The fund, adopted in a budget deal last year, provides payments of $ 15,600 or $ 3,200 to eligible recipients, depending on what verification they can submit, including tax documents. The lesser amount is the same as the total some received over the three rounds of stimulus payments: $ 1,200, $ 600, and $ 1,400.

As of Friday, according to data from the state’s Department of Labor, about 130,000 of the state’s estimated 350,000 claims by workers excluded from the state were paid, indicating to community activists that there remains an increased need. And just over $ 2 billion was distributed, with around 99% of people receiving the $ 15,600 amount.

Most of the people who received funding lived in New York City, as well as Westchester, Erie, and Monroe counties.

However, places outside of New York City received a lower share of the benefits compared to their overall undocumented worker population, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative.

For example, northern and western New York City account for 3% of the state’s undocumented workers, but they were 1% of the beneficiaries of the Excluded Worker Fund, the worker-backed think tank found.

Conversely, New York City has 73% of the state’s undocumented worker population, yet 79% of the fund’s money has gone to undocumented workers living in all five boroughs.

Even though money was a lifeline, many advocates were quick to point out the problems potential program applicants had, including language barriers, the shutdown of foreign consulates during the pandemic, and a lower number of advocacy organizations. immigrants outside of New York City. to publicize the fund.

Organizers argue that gaps are all reasons to push for an improved program that permanently includes those who have been traditionally excluded, arguing that these workers are essential to the economy and should be treated the same.

“Who is going to clean the houses? Janet Hernandez, agency manager for Catholic Charities Community Services in Yonkers, asked. “These are the day laborers.

“We have to honor every worker living in New York State because we are going to avoid exploitation. We will prevent abuse in the workplace, ”added Hernandez.

RELATED: New York to Make $ 2.1 Billion Available to Excluded Workers, Including Undocumented Immigrants.

Excluded either

A rally was held at Don Bosco Place in Port Chester on January 6, 2022 to launch the "Justice bus".  The bus will travel throughout New York State to provide information on the Excluded Workers Fund, to connect with day laborers and workers from different industries, to educate and empower them on labor rights, health and security during the pandemic, salary theft and other issues they may encounter.  The bus is sponsored by the Westchester Labor Alliance and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Alva Valle, of Sullivan County, said the help was a lifeline for her and her family. At the start of the pandemic, she and her children contracted COVID-19.

While her son was able to recover quickly, Valle said she had had an uphill battle with the virus, leaving her unable to work at her job in the fast food industry. With bills piling up, the Worker Justice Center in New York reached out to Valle and helped her apply and get approval for the program.

“I was fortunate to receive these funds,” she said through an interpreter. “And that has meant a huge change for me, my children, for the apartment we live in and for survival.”

Although she was able to secure the funding, Valle said she hopes others who have not been able to access the funds will be able to do so as part of the ongoing program.

How will the new effort work?

A rally was held at Don Bosco Place in Port Chester on January 6, 2022 to launch the "Justice bus".  The bus will travel throughout New York State to provide information on the Excluded Worker Fund, to connect with day laborers and workers from different industries, to educate and empower them on labor rights, health and security during the pandemic, salary theft and other issues they may encounter.  The bus is sponsored by the Westchester Labor Alliance and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The proposal put forward by the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition calls for unemployment compensation for undocumented workers, people paid in cash, as well as self-employed workers such as street workers who may be facing an adverse event.

Those who qualify will receive a lump sum payment equal to the state’s average rate for Unemployment Insurance of $ 1,200 per month.

Documentation required from workers would include direct filings, employer correspondence, tax returns, as well as W-2s. (Many undocumented workers pay taxes but cannot get social security and other benefits.)

The expanded program is expected to cost $ 800 million in the first year, enough to make payments of $ 1,200 to 50,000 people, plus administrative costs, campaigners say.

Yet Janet Fry, deputy executive director of the Community Resource Center, said in December: “We understand the challenges of budgeting as something of this magnitude, but we know that with the first program that was passed this year, it ‘is possible. All it takes is the will.

The money may be there. After a $ 15 billion budget gap caused by the pandemic, the Hochul office said, the state is expected to have balanced budgets through 2025, money that community organizers say could help fund a reinvigorated program for excluded workers.

On Thursday, Sanchez and Fry were among those who launched the Justice Bus, which will cross the state to deliver a message about the Excluded Workers Fund, wage theft and health amid the pandemic.

Outside the bright red bus, a mural on the side of the vehicle may have highlighted the sentiment of the coalition fighting for the expansion of the safety net. A woman wearing a mask that said “Essential and excluded. “

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and justice for the USA TODAY Network in New York. Click here for his latest stories. Follow her on twitter @T_Cusaac.

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