On April 6, a group of undocumented workers and their allies broke a 23-day hunger strike and celebrated the victory of a months-long battle with a festive rally in Washington Square Park. The New York State budget had just been passed and included in it was a first-of-its-kind fund to assist New Yorkers previously barred from receiving government support during the pandemic.
But with the chance to apply for benefits of as much as $15,600 beginning in August, excluded workers are at risk of being excluded again — this time due to burdensome paperwork requirements.
On July 12, the Fund Excluded Workers (FEW) Coalition and Make the Road New York held a rally in front of the Department of Labor (DOL) office on Varick Street demanding that the DOL make the fund’s application process as accessible as possible.
The FEW Coalition says that the DMV, IDNYC, the IRS and foreign consulates — offices that excluded workers will need to visit in order to obtain proof of identity — have low appointment availability and are experiencing backlogs.
Coalition members want clearer communication with the Department of Labor, who they urge to be flexible when assessing the eligibility of submitted documents. They say the department still hasn’t answered some hampering questions about eligibility requirements, application accessibility and payment rollout.
“As it is now, not all of the community could put together an application,” Soñia Peréz of the FEW Coalition told The Indypendent at the rally.
The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates as many as 290,000 workers across the state of New York could receive payments of $15,600 or $3,200 per person. More than 200,000 of those workers live in New York City. People who were incarcerated or detained during the pandemic can also apply if they meet the eligibility requirements.
In order to benefit from the $2.1 billion dollar fund, applicants must provide proper proof of identity, residency and loss of income. Workers who are able to prove lost income can receive a one-time payment of $15,600, the equivalent of having received $300 weekly payments April 2020-April 2021. If applicants are not able to meet the requirements for Tier One, they may qualify for the Tier Two payment, or a $3,200 payment pre-taxes.
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In January, the FEW Coalition, made up of more than 200 groups, started ramping up public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. “We fasted for 23 days, we blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Manhattan Bridge, we slept in front of [Jeff] Bezos’ mansion, we marched in Albany,” New York State Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa (D-72), who introduced the bill in May 2020, told The Indy.
“I don’t think we would have won this fund without the hunger strike,” said Soñia Peréz, a member of the Street Vendors project who lost her husband to the coronavirus last spring. “We demonstrated that the immigrant community is ready to put itself on the line in order to achieve our goals,” Peréz said.
An excluded workers fund was also one of the central demands of the Invest in Our New York “tax the rich” campaign, which, too, saw success. Anyone making more than $1.078 million a year will see a tax increase from 8.82 percent of their yearly income to 9.65 percent until 2027, a change that should result in the redistribution of $2.75 billion over the next fiscal year.
The fund was hotly debated during budget negotiations, which were stretched out five days past the April 1 deadline (to the dismay of hunger strikers who thus extended their fast). Arguments between progressive lawmakers and Governor Cuomo centered around the governor’s desired eligibility requirements, which opponents said would make the fund inaccessible to many because they were too stringent.
“A whole year and 6 months without any help from government, not the federal government, not a stimulus dollar, not unemployment. Government is supposed to include people, not exclude them,” says De La Rosa.
Soñia Peréz says that her community is hard-pressed to make up months of missed rent and that landlords will be the first to receive portions of people’s payments. Assemblymember De La Rosa adds, “and hey, all of us deserve to buy a new pair of shoes every once in a while. Think about living in dignity in one of the richest cities in the world where billionaires are getting richer as our communities die.”
Go to bit.ly/FEWhelp to see a detailed list of application requirements. To receive updates on the rollout process, you can sign up for notifications in one of 13 languages by visiting bit.ly/FEWnotification.
*Quotes from Soñia Peréz were translated from Spanish.
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