More relief sought for excluded workers

Activists and people on hunger strike for 22 days rallied outside the state Capitol in Albany on April 6, hours before the Legislature announced an agreement to include $2.1 billion for excluded essential workers ineligible for unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Courtesy of Columbia County Sanctuary Movement

ALBANY — Advocates plan to fight for additional pandemic relief for undocumented and cash economy workers in next year’s state budget after the state Department of Labor stopped accepting applications for the Excluded Workers Fund late Friday with less than an hour’s notice.

New applications to the state’s $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund were cut off at 7:30 p.m. Friday following a 6:40 p.m. announcement from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office about the new deadline.

Labor Department officials notified organizations working to help affected excluded workers, including undocumented migrant farm, construction, janitorial and other essential laborers who faced COVID-19-related unemployment, inability to work or a COVID-related death or disability of the main source of household income who are ineligible for federal assistance, Friday before the governor’s announcement.

“As a coalition, we have not yet reached out to elected officials with the need for more funds,” Ivy Hest, director of communications and administration with the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, said Monday. “Our organization has been working hard to ensure that as many people could access the fund as possible with such a limited time frame, but will definitely be a part of advocating for future pandemic relief. We will keep working until all those who were eligible for this fund can receive the support they deserve.”

The department has approved about 120,000 applications of more than 330,000 and paid out $1.2 billion in benefits to date, with the total $2.1 billion to be paid out by the end of October.

“We must ensure that immigrant communities are supported in our recovery, and I made a commitment from my first day in office to get relief to New Yorkers in need as quickly as possible,” Hochul said in a statement Friday night. “With leadership from the state Legislature, and in close partnership with communities, this program has already delivered more than $1 billion to tens of thousands of New York families, and the more than $2 billion authorized by the legislature will have been awarded in the three months since the program launched. I thank all of the essential and excluded workers who bravely stepped up during the pandemic, and it remains a top priority to deliver a recovery for all New Yorkers, including our immigrant communities.”

Hochul prioritized processing Excluded Worker Fund applications and getting payments from the $2.1 billion fund out the door after she took office Aug. 24. Applications opened in early August.

More than 99% of approved applicants have received the maximum tier of benefits of $15,600 pre-taxes. The benefits are taxed at about 5%, similar to federal unemployment insurance.

Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, who sponsored the legislation that created the fund, also stressed the need for additional funding to assist eligible families who did not get to apply for relief.

“With 99% of approved applications qualifying for Tier 1 benefits, it is clear Unemployment Insurance excludes hundreds of thousands of taxpayers unfairly, and too many workers, particularly upstate, were unable to participate,” Ramos said in a statement Friday. “We need supplemental funding to continue serving working families on their way to economic recovery.”

Representatives with Democrats in the Senate and Assembly majority conferences did not return multiple requests for comment about their position on adding additional funding to the program.

Lawmakers originally requested $3.5 billion to assist the hundreds of thousands of excluded workers across New York, but settled on $2.1 billion.

It is difficult to estimate an accurate number of New Yorkers and families, who are largely undocumented immigrants, eligible for and in need of relief.

The Excluded Workers Fund helped provide a local economic boost across New York’s 10 regions, but the recovery is slower in rural communities across upstate.

About 20,000 people in the Hudson Valley were eligible to apply, and 4,000 people in the Capital Region, according to Fiscal Policy Institute reports.

The Capital Region has seen $2.4 million boom to date from local excluded workers receiving payments from the fund compared to an April estimate the fund would generate $29 million across the region, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Roughly 9,000 people were estimated to benefit from the fund in western and northern New York.

“The Fund Excluded Workers coalition commends the Hochul Administration and Department of Labor for expeditiously distributing the existing $2.1 billion from the Excluded Workers Fund, which has helped New Yorkers buy medicine, groceries and other necessities for their families, and restock supplies for their businesses,” Fund Excluded Workers coalition coordinator Bianca Guerrero said. “While this historic fund has had a tremendous impact, it is important to note that there are geographic and policy questions that must be addressed going forward. Our coalition is committed to fighting for additional funding, and we look forward to working with the Governor and State Legislature to ensure full, equitable access for excluded workers across the state.”

On Thursday, advocates across the state rallied for legislators to reconvene in a special session and add more money to the Excluded Workers Fund as thousands of eligible workers, especially upstate, because of difficulties securing necessary documentation to prove financial hardship during the pandemic, transportation or language barriers or eligible New Yorkers who recently learned about the fund.

The Labor Department closed applications Friday, the following day.

The Labor Department posted a warning on its website at the end of September that new applications for the fund will no longer be accepted because the assistance is running out and cannot guarantee funds will be awarded for claims submitted after Sept. 24.

Lawmakers remained divided about the fund largely along party lines during negotiations this past spring, with Republicans strongly against spending taxpayer dollars on a fund for undocumented immigrants. Republicans and Democrats debated the fund on the floor for several hours in April, with Republicans adamant against publicly funded programs or assistance for undocumented New Yorkers illegally working and living in the United States.

Those in support of the fund argue human beings cannot be illegal.

“This historic fund has benefited tens of thousands of New Yorkers,” New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said Friday. “I want to thank the advocates and all of our community-based organizations for their partnership in making sure this lifeline went to those individuals who were left out of the federal and state benefits. We could not have stood up this program as quickly as we did, or reach the amount of individuals that we did, without their continued support.”

To see the number of applications and funds the Labor Department has approved and distributed, visit dol.ny.gov/EWF.

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