New Yorkers Previously Excluded From COVID Payments Win $2.1 Billion Relief Fund

On Tuesday, the New York State legislature struck a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a $2.1 billion fund that will provide much-needed relief to people who have been excluded from receiving aid from the coronavirus stimulus relief packages passed by Congress.

Advocates for the fund lauded the deal as a win. “This victory comes after one year of statewide organizing efforts from the #FundExcludedWorkers Coalition — led by impacted workers, culminating in two hunger strikes,” tweeted the coalition of over 100 organizations supportive of the fund. “History is made today!”

The fund is the first of its kind. Some states and cities like California and Seattle have raised funds for pandemic relief for undocumented workers, but none of these funds come close to the excluded workers fund just passed in New York.

The goal of the fund is to provide relief for groups that have been excluded from coronavirus relief like additional unemployment checks and stimulus payments. That includes undocumented workers and people recently released from prison.

The fund will provide workers with relief similar to the amounts that they would have received if they had qualified under the unemployment provisions in the stimulus packages. It is retroactive to when the CARES Act was passed and currently extends to September when current federal unemployment benefits expire. Last-minute negotiations between lawmakers and Cuomo were reportedly over logistical challenges.

Undocumented people, many of whom are in dangerous frontline jobs like agricultural work, have been excluded from COVID relief despite the fact that they pay billions in state and local taxes each year, including over a billion in New York state taxes.

Meanwhile, people in prison often have their relief checks taken from them by prison authorities. Many people who were released from prison before and during the pandemic were also excluded from unemployment relief because they hadn’t yet built up the work history to qualify.

Over the past year, advocates have decried the injustices against the undocumented and formerly incarcerated people. A report from the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) from last year found that 1.2 million people in New York were excluded from unemployment assistance and relief checks under the CARES Act.

“A pandemic is no time to discriminate,” wrote Cyierra Roldan of FPI last May. “If the federal government chooses to promote anti-immigrant policy and discrimination at the expense of public health, New York State must step up to help these vulnerable individuals and protect all New Yorkers.”

Organizations and advocates with the Fund Excluded Workers coalition have been fighting for the fund since last spring, staging strikes and marches, and organizing phone banking campaigns. In a final push, essential workers ramped up the pressure on lawmakers and Cuomo recently by staging a 22-day hunger strike leading up to the creation of the fund.

Advocates worry, however, that the $2.1 billion won’t be enough. An FPI report from last year on excluded workers found that it would take over $3 billion to ensure that the estimated 120,000 people would benefit fully from the fund. Activists have been fighting for the legislature to include $3.5 billion in the budget for the fund and are concerned that logistical hurdles like not having paystubs may end up still excluding workers trying to access aid.

For many advocates, however, the fund is still a win. “This hard-fought win is about humanity, about recognizing how we all depend on each other and must fight for justice for the communities our city and state have left behind,” tweeted Dianne Morales, a candidate for New York City mayor.

Despite some concessions, the fund is still the most ambitious effort to provide excluded workers relief in the country. Most other efforts focus on undocumented immigrants only and are largely insufficient to provide the amount of help that is currently needed.

In California, the state offered a relief program for undocumented immigrants to receive $500 in aid but could only fund 150,000 immigrants. California is home to an estimated 2.2 million undocumented people.

Other places, too, like Chicago, Seattle, Austin and Washington, D.C. have created similar programs specifically for undocumented people, but many of these initiatives still fall short of providing undocumented immigrants sufficient aid. “It is clear that while these government and private initiatives are providing help where otherwise there would have been none, these efforts are no match for the scale of need,” wrote the Migration Policy Institute.