Hunger strike draws attention to workers excluded from COVID-19 relief

Hundreds of thousands have gone without unemployment benefits. Pressure is on the Legislature as the state budget deadline looms.

Hunger strikers at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a rally.

Hunger strikers at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a rally. Rebecca C. Lewis

By the morning of March 19, when Tony Romero arrived at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a rally, he hadn’t eaten for three days. The 60-year-old, who moved to the United States from Nicaragua 15 years ago, was participating in a hunger strike to call for COVID-19 relief for New Yorkers excluded from unemployment benefits. Romero belongs to the largest group of people who didn’t get government support – undocumented workers. He has been out of work – he had been a cook and a house painter – for over a year.

“I'm on hunger strike because for the last 15 years, I've been paying taxes, and this is a huge injustice that I don't have any type of social safety net right now during the pandemic,” Romero, who spoke in Spanish, said through a translator. “My landlord has been pressuring me for rent, I have kids I have to support, and I’ve been dependent on food pantries to survive.”

Romero, along with others who call themselves excluded workers and their allies, joined the hunger strike – which is still ongoing – to demand that the state provide $3.5 billion in aid to compensate workers who were left out. 

Romero’s story is not unique. According to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, there are 187,000 undocumented people in New York who would benefit from a COVID-19 unemployment relief fund. Both the state Senate and the Assembly proposed a $2.1 billion dollar fund in their one-house budget resolutions. But activists and some lawmakers say $2.1 billion is not nearly enough and are still pushing for $3.5 billion, arguing that anything less would be insufficient after a year without any benefits for these workers.

While debates over the amount of relief continue, such a fund was not a part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal at all. When the governor laid out his budget priorities on Wednesday, he didn’t mention the fund. And despite the scandals surrounding the governor, he still has enormous control over the budget.

Although undocumented workers make up the largest portion of these excluded workers, people recently released from incarceration also have not been receiving unemployment benefits from either the state or the federal government. “While we've heard a lot about immigrants being excluded from stimulus payments – and that is true and horrible – the sort of more basic thing is the workers who have recently been released from incarceration, and therefore don't have recent work history,” said Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York. All told, some 274,000 people would benefit from a fund providing aid to those who have not been eligible to receive it, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute report.

Advocates fighting for this fund have been adamant that the state provide $3.5 billion. That number is based on the cost to provide what they say is the minimum amount that eligible full-time workers could receive after they lost their jobs. Those payments would be retroactive through late March 2020, and would continue until Dec. 31 of this year. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute report, the numbers work out to be $750 a week from late March or early April to July 2020. That’s the sum of the minimum average state unemployment benefit for full-time workers of $150 and the $600 in federal unemployment aid available at the time. From August on, the payments would be $450 a week – the $150 minimum from the state plus the $300 payments from the federal government. Although those enhanced benefits are set to expire in September, advocates are working under the assumption that they will be renewed. Combined with the cost of operating the program and providing payments at a flat rate, the total comes out to $3.5 billion based on estimates of the number of people who would benefit.

The legislative one-house budget proposals, which put forward $2.1 billion, envision different compensation amounts, and for a shorter period. Bill language from the state Senate lays out a framework where from March 27 to July 31 2020, workers would be eligible for $600 a week, and later $300 a week, reflecting just the federal relief provided throughout the pandemic. The payments would stop on Sept. 6, 2021, when that federal aid is set to expire. “I'm very thankful that leadership in the Legislature understands the importance of this issue … and that we were able to allocate $2.1 million really is a monumental accomplishment,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who is sponsoring legislation to create an excluded workers fund, told City & State. “But unfortunately, it's not enough to cover everyone in the way that they should.” She was one of many lawmakers and candidates, including New York City mayoral candidates Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales, who engaged in a 24-hour hunger strike in solidarity with the long-term strikers after one of the many rallies activists have held in New York City.

David Dyssegaard Kallick, author of the Fiscal Policy Institute report examining the costs of the fund, said that the math behind the $2.1 billion proposed by the Legislature in their one-house budgets works out based on his calculations. “I don't want to endorse that idea, of course, but I mean, you could get to $2.1 billion by doing that,” Kallick said. But that’s not the only calculation he has. Although advocates are calling for $3.5 billion, they consider that total to be the bare minimum of what excluded workers would be entitled to. Kallick said if the fund provided the average unemployment payout over the course of the pandemic, it would cost $4.7 billion. He conceded that all these numbers are big ones, but he noted that this represents two years of coverage, and that the state has spent $117 billion on unemployment so far during the pandemic. “This is real, family-sustaining income that all the other workers get,” Kallick said. 

Of course, all this is moot if people, particularly undocumented immigrants, don’t feel safe or comfortable applying for state aid, regardless of how much money the fund ultimately includes. Bianca Guerrero, the coordinator of the Fund Excluded Workers coalition, said organizers are taking lessons from the Green Light Law, which enabled undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. “We are pretty confident, given the expertise in how those policies have turned out, the lessons we've learned, that we have very robust protections for undocumented workers specifically,” Guerrero said. “When the fund is actually passed and we have funds to dole out and we're trying to get people to apply, the 200-plus organizations in our coalition include a lot of folks that work deeply in these communities.” She added that because formerly incarcerated people would also be applying, the list of applicants would never be an exclusive list of undocumented people. And if someone shares any information with immigratation agents, the legislation put forward by the state Senate in its one-house resolution includes penalties for such behavior of up to a year in prison.

Some of the details about how exactly the program will be run and be administered remain undetermined. “We've been in conversations with central staff of both houses,” Axt said. “And they've been extremely responsive to trying to design the program with a lot of deference to advocates’ expertise.” Guerrero cautioned that placing control of the fund with an agency not equipped to give out the money could lead to problems. “We don't want folks in blue areas to get the money before folks in red areas,” Guerrero said. “We want this to be as quickly expedited across the state as soon as possible.”

The fate of the fund, even the $2.1 billion, is uncertain. Cuomo, who did not include an excluded workers fund in his executive budget proposal, has not commented on the fund, despite the intense push from activists and lawmakers to get it passed. A spokesperson for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment. And getting the full $3.5 billion too might be difficult – traditionally, one-house budgets from legislators represent the ceiling for negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor. It’s not often that the budget winds up with more than what the Legislature proposed. Spokespeople for state Senate Majority Leader Andea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment on where they stand on the $3.5 billion push. “We're in the middle of a hunger strike, we're really dedicated to pushing to make sure every single little worker that's eligible gets the maximum possible benefit,” Guerrero said. “We are not willing to settle.”