Advocates: Open jobless insurance to all

Hundreds of people march in New York City on Dec. 10 requesting $3 billion in additional Excluded Workers Fund assistance and to expand the state’s unemployment insurance to make all workers eligible in case of losing their jobs, including undocumented immigrants, cash economy or self-employed laborers.

Activists jumpstarted a legislative push Thursday to expand state unemployment insurance to all New York workers in case of job loss, including undocumented immigrants, cash economy and self-employed laborers, when session resumes next month.

Impacted workers, lawmakers and organizations also renewed their plea to dedicate $3 billion in additional aid to the Excluded Workers Fund, urging officials to dedicate funds from a multi-billion-dollar surplus.

The state’s unemployment program must be changed, advocates said, announcing legislation coined Excluded No More. The measure would expand coverage to about 50,000 workers in the state per month earning less than 80% or 100% of the state’s median individual earnings — or $45,000 and $56,000 a year, respectively — depending on the worker’s category.

“These are the New Yorkers that are usually left on their own if they lose their job, and it’s just wrong,” said Emma Kreyche, organizing and advocacy coordinator at the Worker Justice Center of New York during a virtual rally Thursday. “It puts workers in an untenable situation. During the COVID pandemic, we have seen too many workers forced to make an impossible choice between putting food on the table and or protecting their health and that of their families. All labor has value and deserve respect.”

The proposed program would cost about $800 million in its first year. Any surplus would roll over to the following fiscal year.

The new program, if it becomes law, would require applicants to demonstrate a lack of work similar to regular unemployment benefits, and can apply the month after their unemployment and must reapply monthly up to six months per year.

Workers who qualify would get a flat payment matching the average state unemployment insurance monthly payment of $1,200.

Irma Santiago, an excluded worker, has lived in Rhinebeck for five years and cleans rooms for a living. A 56-year-old mother of three and member of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, Santiago was born in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Santiago’s husband died more than a year ago. Three years ago, one of her daughters died after a battle with cancer at the age of 30.

“I think when you’ve suffered a lot, you appreciate every little thing,” she said through interpreter Diana Cruz, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement’s director of programs and services.

She continues to send money to her two daughters who remain in Mexico.

Santiago knows other excluded workers who found out about the fund after applications were closed. Expanded unemployment insurance and additional commitments to the Excluded Worker Fund would greatly help close the gaps, she said.

“It’s needed,” she said. “There’s a lot of children who are also suffering. I know that if we are united, we will be able to get this through.”

Affected workers would be required to submit correspondence from employers, direct deposit receipts, self-attestation, or any applicable W-2, 1099 or other income tax filings to qualify.

Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, and Assemblymembers Karines Reyes, D-Bronx, Marcela Mitaynes, D-Brooklyn, and Jessica González-Rojas, D-Queens, spoke at a virtual press conference with several organizations Thursday announcing they will introduce legislation for the program in early 2022. Session begins Jan. 5.

“It was stunning to me just how broken our safety net here in New York has been, and we’ve placed... taxpaying New Yorkers in very difficult positions of having to choose between having to go to work and being able to provide for their families,” said Sen. Ramos, who sponsored the legislation that created the fund.

The state’s $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund in this year’s budget provided relief to hundreds of thousands of laborers ineligible for federal assistance amid the pandemic. Lawmakers on Thursday urged for $3 billion in the 2022-23 budget for additional Excluded Workers Fund benefits for hundreds of thousands of eligible workers — especially upstate — who did not get relief because of difficulties securing necessary documentation to prove financial hardship during the pandemic, transportation or language barriers, or eligible New Yorkers who recently learned about the program.

The Labor Department approved 130,532 Excluded Workers Fund applications of 350,823 submitted, according to the department’s Excluded Workers Fund Dashboard.

Applications were submitted in a variety of languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Polish, French, Russian, Arabic, Bengali and Haitian Creole. The greatest number of applicants are between the ages of 30 and 39, according to the department’s website.

The fund was open for nine weeks. It is difficult to estimate an accurate number of New Yorkers and families, who are largely undocumented immigrants, who did not access the relief before applications closed Oct. 8.

About 73% of applicants hailed from New York City, with 12% from Long Island, 7% from the Lower Hudson Valley, 3% in the Mid-Hudson Valley, 1% in the Capital Region and 3% each in the north country and Western New York, according to the Immigration Research Initiative.

“What we need to do is really finish the job that we started last year ... and need to make sure we have $3 billion more in the next New York state budget so that we can extend the help of the Excluded Workers Fund to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers more who were left out,” Ramos said, noting the high demand for the program and rapid distribution.

González-Rojas and Mitaynes recently spoke with Gov. Kathy Hochul about the need for the additional $3 billion for the Excluded Workers Fund at a breakfast meeting, she said Thursday.

“While we didn’t get any specific response or commitment, it has been raised, so she’s well aware of the interest and need to get this done,” González-Rojas said.

Representatives with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, would not disclose if they support expanded unemployment benefits.

“The speaker will discuss all issues with the conference when we return for session,” Assembly spokeswoman Kerri Biche said in a statement Thursday.

Representatives of Stewart-Cousins and the Senate Majority conference did not return a request for comment.

Ivy Hest, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement’s director of communications and administration, said the group has met with upper Hudson Valley and Capital Region legislators about additional excluded workers relief.

“Our representatives recognize the need for upstate communities to finally obtain equal access to this pandemic relief program,” Hest said in a statement. “We are hopeful they will support the replenishment of the Excluded Workers Fund and a long-term solution.”

Santiago received relief from the Excluded Worker program, helping to cover medical costs, clothes and other necessities she struggled to afford due to pandemic-related hardship.

“It’s really helping me a lot — it’s really making a difference,” Santiago said. “...Undocumented workers are the most hard-working people — we put in the most amount of effort. I think if there is money, I think it is important that they support us, and it is fair.”

A HOME FOR THE SURPLUS

Advocates and lawmakers expressed confidence Thursday that the state can afford the $3 billion investment.

Tax collections were $1.8 billion greater than forecast by the Division of the Budget in the First Quarter Update to the financial plan released earlier this fall.

The state is ahead by about $941 million on personal income tax receipts, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s November State Cash Report.

The state has received an excess of $4.9 billion receipts over disbursements, and $1.2 billion in taxes in its updated financial plan, according to the November report.

Gov. Hochul directed $12 billion to the state’s reserves, or rainy day fund through 2025, including $3.3 billion each this and next fiscal year and $1.5 billion each the following two years. The investment will cause the state’s reserves to swell to a projected $18.9 billion.

“The part that’s unencumbered, so to speak, right now is anything that comes in excess of the most recent financial plan,” Patrick Orecki, director of state studies with the Citizens Budget Commission, said Thursday. “The state could reprogram (the $1.2 billion) rather than put into the reserves. That $1.2 isn’t booked to be spent in any way.”

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But the amount the state commits to the reserves could be renegotiated as budget discussions heat up.

“That’s what the governor and Division of the Budget have projected to do, but it’s subject to negotiation,” Orecki said. “The governor could change her mind, and the governor and the Legislature could come up with another purpose for those funds. It’s not locked away somewhere.”

If some of the surplus is committed to additional Excluded Worker Fund relief, advocates said community-based groups and other agencies will direct applicants who could be eligible to the program and help them complete the application process to avoid hurdles that hindered workers this year with the initial program.

Lawmakers were divided about the fund largely along party lines during negotiations last spring, with Republicans strongly against spending taxpayer dollars on a fund for undocumented immigrants. Republicans and Democrats debated the fund on the floor for several hours in April, with Republicans adamant against publicly funded programs or assistance for undocumented New Yorkers illegally working and living in the United States.

Those in support of the fund argue human beings cannot be illegal.

The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement and several others joined forces last year, holding marches throughout the state, shutting down bridges, holding 24-hour sleepouts and a 23-day hunger strike to secure the fund.

“We plan to fight just as hard this year,” Hest said.

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