ALBANY — Jairo Reyes did not eat for three days. Weak, tired and famished, he remembered his community when he found it difficult to focus.

Reyes, of Yonkers, was one of hundreds of New Yorkers to participate in a 22-day statewide hunger strike to raise awareness for funding for thousands of state essential workers excluded from unemployment benefits or stimulus checks for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

The hunger pains, Reyes said, were worth it.

The state Legislature included $2.1 billion in its final 2021-22 budget, which the Assembly was expected to adopt Wednesday, for New York residents who lost wages or income after February 2020 because of COVID-19-related unemployment or inability to work or a COVID-related death or disability of the main source of household income.

“I was very emotional when I first heard about the fund,” Reyes, who does not speak English, said through Jirandy Martinez, executive director of the Mamaroneck Community Resource Center, who translated. “I was so emotional and very happy because what that fund means is now, worker families can have a little bit of extra income to support their families and they get something for their children, for food and to pay rent.

“I did it to support my community,” he added of the fast. “I knew putting my body on the line would be not just for me, but keeping in mind all of the worker families and community that have been excluded from their state government, and even nationwide, for many, many years. I was doing it for my worker community and representing them.”

About 160,000 New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants and cash economy workers, can apply for Excluded Workers Fund benefits. The excluded workers include migrant farm, construction, janitorial and other essential laborers.

Workers are eligible for two tiers of benefits awarded by a point system after the person proves their residency and identity. To receive the top level of benefits, up to $15,600 pre-taxes, workers must have filed a tax return for 2018, 2019 and 2020 using a valid ITIN number. A letter from an employer showing dates of work or six weeks of pay stubs to prove residency can fulfill application requirements for either assistance amount.
 
The benefits will be taxed at about 5%, or similar to federal unemployment insurance.

Reyes worked as a welder for nine years, but his employer required him to quarantine for two weeks, twice, after his father-in-law got sick with COVID-19 last spring. Reyes wasn’t allowed to return to work even after proving he was not sick. His company’s secretary suggested they had too many older people working there, and suggested he apply for unemployment, he said.

Reyes has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, but not a Social Security Number. A Social Security Number is required for unemployment benefits, so he decided to strike.

“It helps me not just economically, but mentally,” said Nelson, a Stottville resident and father of three who is a member of Columbia County Sanctuary Movement. Representatives with the sanctuary movement withheld Nelson’s last name due to his immigration status.

“It is hard to live with the burden of knowing you have to pay a bill and not being able to do it,” he said.

Nelson spoke and marched at various local events at the state Capitol over the last two weeks leading up to the budget’s passage. He participated in a day-long hunger strike in solidarity with the excluded workers in New York City.

“We are very happy, we just hope that the funds are distributed well and fairly,” he said.

A person cannot have received unemployment insurance or federal COVID-related stimulus checks or aid, and cannot have earned more than $26,208 within the last year to be eligible for the funding.

Republicans and Democrats engaged in tense and spirited discussion about the excluded worker fund as session continued early Wednesday morning.

Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Castleton, voted against the revenue bill that includes the Excluded Worker Fund. The fund was one of the most contentious issues in negotiating the nearly one-week late $212 billion spending plan.

“In this scheme, the Majority wants to hand out $2.1 billion of taxpayer’s money to illegal immigrants and others,” Jordan said on the floor early Wednesday morning. “Who says crime doesn’t pay? In New York, state crime sure does pay.

“...Illegal immigrants are just that — they’re illegal,” she added. “Each day they’re here, they’re breaking the law — our nation’s laws. They’re not supposed to be working and their employers are also breaking the law by paying them under the table. This sets up an unemployment fund for those working illegally and those employers who have never paid into the unemployment insurance fund for them. Think about all we should be spending this $2.1 on.”

Jordan expressed frustration about the required documentation for people to apply.

“Applicants would not be required to prove they are in the United States lawfully to be eligible,” she said. “There’s lowering the bar, and then there’s burying it. And this buries it.”

The fund, she added, “is a carrot to all those coming into our country thanks to our current border crisis. New York, we’re saying, is open for business.”

Other Republicans in both chambers argued, before voting against the Aid to Localities spending bill, that the increased taxes on the rich would accelerate New York’s outmigration rate, which is the highest of any state in the nation.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, said no person is illegal.

“These are beings, these are people, these are workers,” the senator said before voting for the fund he helped to negotiate. “They’re excluded and they are essential — essential because at the height of the pandemic when many of us were stuck at home...who was delivering our food? Who was picking the vegetables and the fruits we continued to eat during the pandemic?

“We’re making history today and I feel proud of that.”

Activists pushed for a $3.5 billion Excluded Worker Fund, but legislative leaders compromised on the Assembly’s original $2.1 billion proposal.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, released in January, did not include the Excluded Workers Fund. Formerly incarcerated people remain ineligible for the Legislature’s $2.1 billion agreement.

Former Hudson resident Dawedo Sanon, a member of Columbia County Sanctuary Movement who was recently released from ICE detention, said the $2.1 billion fund is a first step in the right direction and a victory for the immigrant community.

“I am glad the New York government has finally stepped up to help those in need and hope other states follow suit,” Sanon said. “The restrictions included do cut out a lot of people in need, and I hope there are considerations made to help those who need it most access those funds.”

Editor's note: This story reflects a clarification regarding the eligibility for Excluded Workers Fund benefits.

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