New York's $2 billion relief fund for undocumented workers drained in just two months
Immigrant advocacy groups on Long Island are demanding more funding for a state program that helped undocumented workers who lost income due to the pandemic.
Advocates and undocumented workers gathered at a state office building in Hauppauge on Thursday to call for an extension of the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, which helped workers who were not otherwise eligible for state or federal unemployment benefits.
The fund has nearly depleted the $2.1 billion the governor initially allocated in the state budget in August and is expected to completely run out of money by the end of the month.
"I don’t think anyone expected things to move this quickly," said Ani Halasz, the director of Long Island Jobs with Justice.
The program stopped accepting applications on October 8, just eight weeks following its launch, due to high demand. The state is not guaranteeing funds will be available for applications submitted after September 24, but advocates said they need the program, which became a potential lifeline.
Gabriela Yanes said she worked as a house cleaner before the pandemic and was hit hard by a loss of hours due to the need to support a big family.
“I pay my taxes,” Yanes said. “We have rights to receive this fund.”
To qualify for the program, applicants needed to be New York residents, and have lived in the state before the pandemic. They could not have received unemployment insurance or other COVID-19 related income relief, must have made less than $26,000, and lost at least half of their weekly income due to COVID-19. Applicants also needed to prove both their identity and residency.
“There’s a lot of women in New York like me,'' said Heydi Salguero of the Rural Migrant Ministry, an advocacy group for migrant workers. She lost her job after she had to stay home with her 8-year-old son, who was taking classes at home.
Salguero applied for the fund the first week of September and is still waiting to be approved.
“I hope there will be help for all of us who have been left in the shadows,” she said.
“We are not asking a favor. We are here to tell them that we need help,” said Victoria Hernandez, who helped applicants apply for the fund through the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County. “People are behind and don't get the funds and don’t get help to survive.”
George Siberón, executive director of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association, has also been assisting applicants.
“I still have maybe 15, 20 folks that need help to fill out the application,'' Siberón said. “What do I tell them? They are waiting for this money and there is no money.”
To date, the program has received over 350,000 applications statewide and granted funds to over 125,000 applicants. About 17,000 fund recipients came from Suffolk County. Over 99% of approved applicants were determined to be eligible to receive a full benefit of $15,600.
While New York City is home to 73% of undocumented New Yorkers, residents there received 81% of the Excluded Worker Fund so far. Long Island is home to 12% of undocumented New Yorkers and only received only 10% of the funds, according to Dilcia Erazo, who worked as project coordinator for the Excluded Worker Fund at SEPA Mujer, a Latina advocacy group in Patchogue.
Governor Kathy Hochul has not directly indicated whether or not she will allocate more funding to the program. “I thank all of the essential and excluded workers who bravely stepped up during the pandemic, and it remains a top priority to deliver a recovery for all New Yorkers, including our immigrant communities," she said in a statement last week.
A spokesperson for the governor told WSHU on Friday any additional funds would have to be addressed when the Legislature is in session.
Advocates said barriers such as not being able to provide work authorization, proof of residency and lack of access to the internet prevented more people from applying. In a letter to Hochul this month, a group of 16 state senators called for more funding to be allocated to the program, and for these barriers to be eliminated.
The state lawmakers pointed out that workers who are paid in cash would not have proof of income, some documents they needed may have been destroyed in Hurricane Ida this summer, and many have trouble using the automated phone system allocated to the program. In other instances, advocates said the applicants could simply not get in touch with representatives, were asked for documents they already submitted or simply didn’t know about the program.
“Despite the best intentions, outreach programs were not properly implemented in a way that fully enabled potential beneficiaries to be aware of the benefits that might exist before to the commencement of the application window,” the letter read.
The program initially sparked debate between progressive and moderate Democrats, as well as strong opposition from Republicans.
“I voted against this year's massive $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund and do not support providing additional taxpayer funding for this program,” Republican Senator Anthony Palumbo said in a statement.
Democratic County Legislator Samuel Gonzalez called for increased funding for the program through a spokesperson at the rally. “Discontinuing this fund creates imbalances across the state and makes yet another obstacle for excluded workers,” he said.
“It's important for excluded workers to have access to the resources they need to stay safe and financially afloat.”