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Undocumented Workers and Freelancers Demand Unemployment Safety Net in New York

Hundreds of thousands of workers are currently excluded from receiving unemployment insurance in New York State.

Excluded workers take a knee as they observe a moment of silence during a march across the Manhattan Bridge on March 6, 2023, in New York City.

New York State’s social safety net contains a gaping hole: hundreds of thousands of workers whose labor is central to the state’s economy are excluded from receiving unemployment insurance.

Freelancers, cash economy workers, formerly incarcerated people and undocumented workers are among the large swath of New Yorkers shut out of receiving unemployment protections that “traditional” workers take for granted.

But all this could change soon, depending on what New York’s elected leaders — especially Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — decide to do in the coming days as the state’s budget is finalized.

The #FundExcludedWorkers Coalition, a broad alliance of dozens of labor, community, immigrant and faith organizations, has rallied behind the campaign to win the Unemployment Bridge Program, sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Karines Reyes. The legislation would create a permanent unemployment assistance program for New York State workers who are excluded from the current system.

During the pandemic, New York proved it could provide this kind of unemployment relief by establishing the Excluded Workers Fund, which paid out $2.1 billion to over 128,000 workers. But Hochul failed to replenish the fund, and her proposed state budget released on February 1 did not include money for the Unemployment Bridge Program. Organizers are now in high gear as they push for the program’s inclusion in the final budget, which has an April 1 deadline.

Advocates say the program would “create a 21st-century safety net” by permanently extending unemployment insurance protections to hundreds of thousands of workers — most of whom are Black, Brown and immigrants — whose labor is increasingly central to the state’s economy.

“New York is one of the wealthiest states in the whole country, and yet we’re not even taking care of our own essential workers who sacrifice themselves to make this state’s economy run,” Diana Sánchez, regional organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told Truthout. “Why wait until the next pandemic? New York should be leading this fight.”

“We Are Workers, Full Stop. It’s Time to Treat Us Accordingly”

When the pandemic hit, Zoë Beery, a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist, faced financial disaster. Her work assignments dried up within two weeks while her bank account nosedived into double digits.

Beery told Truthout that the “double gut punch” of losing work and not having any unemployment support was a “brutal reminder of how unsupported freelancers are.”

When the CARES Act included support for freelancers, it was a huge relief for Beery, but it also brought into focus that “the way things had been working was actually unacceptable and untenable.”

Freelancers, cash economy workers, formerly incarcerated people and undocumented workers are among the large swath of New Yorkers shut out of receiving unemployment protections that “traditional” workers take for granted.

“It’s really messed up that it took a horrific, brutal pandemic to get that recognition,” she said.

The Unemployment Bridge Program, financed by a $500 million fund allocated in the state budget, would be transformational for hundreds of thousands of workers in New York State whose labor is vital to the state’s economy but who have been excluded from its unemployment safety net.

Around 750,000 workers across four categories — immigrants without work authorization; self-employed people and freelancers; domestic workers, landscapers and construction workers on very small teams; and people re-entering the labor force after being incarcerated or in immigration detention — would be covered by the program, according to the Immigration Research Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank on immigrant integration.

When the COVID-19 pandemic threw hundreds of thousands of workers in New York out of a job, workers excluded from traditional unemployment insurance faced financial catastrophe. But two pieces of federal and state legislation provided some relief. The CARES Act covered freelance workers, cash economy workers and the self-employed, while New York State established an Excluded Workers Fund for workers shut out of federal support, especially many undocumented immigrants.

During the height of the pandemic, New York “came closer than at any point in its history to having an unemployment insurance system that served the whole population,” writes the Immigration Research Initiative.

Beery says the pandemic showed it’s possible to provide precarious workers the same kind of safety net that’s given to full-time workers, and she’s been campaigning to win the Unemployment Bridge Program with the Freelance Solidarity Project of the National Writers Union, a member of the #FundExcludedWorkers Coalition.

Along with the material security the program would provide, Beery says having her labor “recognized as real work that contributes to the economy of New York” is also important.

“We should not have to wait until the next global catastrophe to get the safety net we deserve,” Beery recently told lawmakers in Albany. “We are workers, full stop. It’s time to treat us accordingly.”

“People That Are Left Behind Are Almost Entirely Black and Brown People”

Advocates emphasize that the Unemployment Bridge Program will help advance racial justice in New York State. An estimated 73 percent of workers who would benefit from the program are non-white, with nearly 60 percent being Black and Hispanic/Latinx.

“We should not have to wait until the next global catastrophe to get the safety net we deserve.”

This is a point stressed by Jose Hamza Saldana, the director of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), a grassroots campaign led by formerly incarcerated people working to end mass incarceration and release aging people in prison.

“People that are left behind are almost entirely Black and Brown people,” said Saldana. “So if the governor doesn’t see it as a racial justice issue, then there’s something wrong.”

Saldana, who was released from state prison in 2018 after 38 years, says formerly incarcerated people face daunting economic challenges during reentry into society, especially around securing stable housing, work and food.

“It’s a financial nightmare that formerly incarcerated people face out here,” he told Truthout.

Saldana said incarcerated people are paid “literally pennies” for doing essential work that the state depends on. “Every single desk that we see in the state capitol” and “every single New York State license plate” are made by incarcerated people, he said.

The Unemployment Bridge Program would cover up to 21,000 formerly incarcerated people who had been held for at least a year in prison or immigration detention. They could receive between $4,200 and $12,000 a year in unemployment relief as they reenter society.

Saldana says this support would be life-changing for formerly incarcerated people.

“They could actually take their time and map out what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives as free people,” he said. “People will actually feel that the challenges are not as impossible anymore.”

“We Need to Not Be in Crisis Mode”

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Unemployment Bridge Program would be undocumented workers. The Immigrant Research Initiative estimates that around 470,000 immigrants lacking work authorization would be covered under the new plan, 90 percent of whom are non-white.

The pandemic starkly revealed how undocumented immigrants in New York, despite providing essential labor for the state’s economy, are also among the state’s most vulnerable workers.

“People that are left behind are almost entirely Black and Brown people. So if the governor doesn’t see it as a racial justice issue, then there’s something wrong.”

Jennifer Connor, executive director and founding member of the Buffalo-based Justice for Migrant Families, told Truthout “there were literally no support systems” for undocumented people without work authorization when the pandemic hit. Immigrant rights groups across the state scrambled to provide mutual aid, but the establishment of the Excluded Workers Fund was “life-changing” for undocumented workers who qualified.

Connor said the Unemployment Bridge Program would especially benefit women who are often supporting families, including workers who didn’t qualify for the Excluded Workers Fund but would qualify for the new program.

One of these workers, who identified herself as Delfina, spoke at a January press conference that Connor attended. She was working at a plant nursery in Syracuse when the pandemic began in March 2020. With business collapsing, she was fired by her boss.

“I have two children living with me, and I also was supporting my family in Guatemala,” she said. “We had nowhere to live and I was left without work for a year. My father got sick and my brother had an accident, but I couldn’t help anymore because of lack of work.”

Delfina told the press conference that she received assistance from community groups, but no unemployment relief from the state.

“As immigrants, we are part of the community and we deserve protection under the unemployment program,” she said.

Without unemployment support, says Connor, undocumented workers who are experiencing chronic pain or injury cannot afford to take time off, or even reveal to their employer that they’re sick. Sánchez says day laborers she works with “wouldn’t feel trapped in a system where they could face a lot of abuse” if they had greater access to unemployment insurance protections.

Connor says New York needs the Employment Bridge Program as “a matter of respect for workers in the region,” as well as recognition that the government, and not mutual aid groups, should be providing this support.

“We need to not be in crisis response mode,” said Connor. “That’s why we’ve turned to the Unemployment Bridge Program as a planned, sustained program that any worker in New York State should be able to access.”

“The People Are Going to Make It Happen”

For advocates of the Unemployment Bridge Program, the campaign has been inspiring, with a diverse coalition of over 100 labor, community, immigrant, freelance and carceral justice organizations joining in. A number of powerful labor unions and faith-based groups and leaders have called on Hochul, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie to support the program.

On March 6, hundreds of excluded workers calling for the program marched across the Manhattan Bridge, stopping traffic for an hour. Dozens of organizers have joined forces to talk to lawmakers, piling into buses in the early morning hours to head to Albany.

The feeling of solidarity is special, organizers say, and speaks to the need to collectively address insecurity in nontraditional working conditions that are becoming the norm.

“This increasingly precarious workforce is such a defining factor of where the economy is going and of the experience of being a working person in this country,” says Eric Thurm, the campaign coordinator for the National Writers Union. “I feel very grateful that so many organizations are acknowledging the centrality of that and are working to address that collectively.”

“People feel a very high level of commitment as they hear each other’s stories, and I see people’s motivation increasing as we’re deep in the legislative season,” says Connor.

Advocates have no illusions about the challenges they face in convincing top lawmakers to make the Unemployment Bridge Program a reality, but they have faith that their cause is on the right side of history and that their coalition will keep pushing for victory.

“My confidence is not so much with the leadership, but with the people,” said Saldana. “The people are going to make it happen.”