ALBANY — Activists and employees Wednesday sought justice, and $3.5 billion in the upcoming state budget, for certain essential workers who have been left out, or ineligible, to receive federal and state assistance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of New York essential workers, such as undocumented immigrants, cash economy workers and people recently released from state prison, have largely been ineligible to receive unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and other federal and state economic relief programs in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis. The number of estimated excluded workers equals roughly $3.5 billion in supplemental benefits.
Dawedo Sanon, a former Hudson resident and supporter of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, joined activists and faith leaders in the concourse beneath the state Capitol in Albany on Wednesday afternoon to plead for the state Senate and Assembly to include $3.5 billion for excluded essential workers in each chamber’s budget. Visitors have been barred from the state Capitol for the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They can’t get unemployment, they’ve got food insecurity,” said Sanon, who came to the United States from Haiti at age 5. “These problems come from a lack of legislation to protect us, a lack of funding and a lack of support from the government.
“...Immigrants pay taxes — whether they’re buying clothes or sending money to our families, but the government still isn’t helping us.”
Activists are fighting for lawmakers to legalize six pieces of legislation and the Worker Bailout Fund, which would establish a billionaire tax to create a worker bailout program and give unemployment and other benefits to employees who are typically excluded.
The state’s 2021-22 budget deadlines April 1.
Sanon, who now lives in Albany, was held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly a year, and said the site was overcrowded and was hard for families to communicate or get information.
“Now, I’m back in my community and I see how COVID made a bad situation worse,” she said, adding she continues to look for work and sees too few employment opportunities. “When I got out, I saw my community still in hiding, still scared that they couldn’t provide help their families needed.
“The disparities happening now are going to impact my community for years to come.”
Assembly and Senate Democrats proposed tax hikes on the wealthy in their budget proposals passed last week, including a 1% tax on income from capital gains. Both chambers seek to increase the top income tax rate from 8.82% to 9.85% for single filers who earn more than $1 million, couples who file jointly earning more than $2 million and adding additional tax brackets for higher earners.
The Senate and Assembly has proposed $2.1 billion for essential workers to be distributed via a program set to expire in September. Activists are pushing for the $3.5 billion and for the program to continue through at least December so workers will receive unemployment benefits and aid payments on-par with other essential employees.
Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, D-Queens, stopped for an impromptu speech at Wednesday’s rally, and said the proposed tax hikes do not go far enough.
“We need to elevate the urgency of this fund,” she said. “I’m thrilled we’re starting with a floor of $2.1 [billion], but it’s just not enough and it’s not going to meet the need that’s out there.
“We have a good floor, but we need to continue this push.”
The Assembly proposed nearly $6.7 billion in new tax increases, rising to $8.1 billion in 2022, including three income tax rate hikes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top aides have spoken out against state tax hikes for New York millionaires and billionaires, but have verbally backed a federal tax for the nation’s wealthy.
“We have the money,” the assemblywoman said. “The Assembly one-house budget is very strong, but we can find ways to raise revenue.
“There’s resistance to moving the [proposal of six bills],” she added. “We’re not there yet, but there’s promise.”
State Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott did not answer questions Wednesday about ongoing discussions to increase taxes on state millionaires and billionaires, the amount of funding for essential workers in the state budget or if undocumented immigrants or formerly incarcerated New Yorkers would be eligible for assistance.
“Budget negotiations are ongoing,” Klopott said in a statement.
Several activists Wednesday participated in the larger hunger strike New York City and Westchester County activists started last week to raise awareness for essential workers excluded from benefits.
Hundreds of workers led a march across the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges last week with simultaneous press conferences across the state in support of an excluded workers fund.
“All this suffering is unnecessary,” said Sara Curtis, advocacy and communications specialist for Worker Justice Center of NY. “New York has the resources to provide all workers with the support they need and deserve. The workers who risk their bodies and their wellness every single day, who pay taxes, are entitled to live in dignity in a state as wealthy as ours. We echo the demands for $3.5 billion for an Excluded Worker Fund, equal to what all other New Yorkers have received during the pandemic.”
Gov. Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday, but has typically referred similar funding inquiries to the Budget Division.
Representatives from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.
Activists and speakers rallied Wednesday from the New York Immigration Coalition, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement based in Hudson, the Worker’s Center of Central NY and members from Mujeres Divinas, both of Syracuse, and Rochester’s Worker Justice Center of Central NY.