“Esenciales por siempre. Excluidos nunca más.”

“Essential forever. Excluded no more,” proclaimed a striking orange banner.

On March 8, this message heralded hundreds of workers, deliveristas, activists, and allies as they marched across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. The action stopped traffic for good reason: to secure $3 billion more for New York’s groundbreaking Excluded Workers Fund and a permanent unemployment program for excluded workers in the state’s budget.

“During the pandemic, I witnessed coworkers, family members, and friends struggle to make ends meet because they were not fortunate enough to qualify for unemployment benefits,” recounted Laborers’ Local 79 organizer Alvaro Gonzalez during the march. “And when stimulus checks got around, they were still excluded from those packages. It seemed like there was no hope in sight. Then finally, the Excluded Workers Fund was created. But very quickly that hope went away: very few of the people I know actually got some funds, but the rest got told that there was no more money or they didn’t qualify. After being told that they were essential, they were left in the dark.”

Xichitl Gomez, a house cleaner, explained through translation that after she did not receive funds, she had no choice but to turn to food pantries — like countless other excluded workers before the fund’s creation.

The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition (FEW Coalition) formed in the wake of COVID-19 to advocate for workers who, despite providing New York with the essential labor it needed to sustain itself, were shut out from state and federal pandemic benefits. As has been well documented throughout the last two years, workers of colorwomen, and immigrant and undocumented workers experienced the lion’s share of economic precarity during the pandemic. These workers were more likely to serve in essential roles, earn low wages, and face high risk of  viral exposure.

To address this short- and long-term exclusion, pandemic-era injustices, and deep-seeded exploitation, community organizations, including Make the Road and New York Communities for Change, joined forces with labor and immigrant rights groups to form the coalition and lobby for state resources.

To gain the attention of legislators and a place in last year’s budget, the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition launched a striking and effective activism campaign. Their “Fast for the Forgotten” hunger strike in 2021 led up to the state budget’s finalization. For weeks, losing all strength beyond their convictions, starving workers explained how their cause was a matter of life or death.

Former restaurant worker Ana Ramirez explained her participation in Spanish: “We’re here because we’ve worked without benefits. We lifted this city up. There are many families – we’re not one, or ten. We paid our taxes, and it’s not right that we have to fight for what belongs to us.”

“We want the laws to be just – because it is then that we can work with love, with honor, with dignity, and love this homeland,” Ramirez stated in March 2021, 11 days into her hunger strike. “It is not just me, but thousands of families – families that went to the bakery to make the bread so that the rich can eat during this pandemic comfortably.” Her hunger, she felt, channeled the hunger of hundreds of thousands of others.

After 23 days, the strikers successfully won $2.1 billion of state funding for excluded worker relief, breaking their fasts from wheelchairs in Washington Square Park. Next came the challenging task of implementation and application for benefits, beginning in August.

Through comprehensive eligibility vetting – requiring submission of evidence like IDs, utility bills, and employer letters – around 130,000 recipients received the maximum benefit of $15,600. Two months later, the money ran out, with 95,000 applications left unfulfilled.

While cash relief remains urgent due to the pandemic – along with skyrocketing rents and prices – the coalition’s 2022, “2.0” incarnation aims to fortify the hard-won Excluded Workers Fund with $3 billion. Their proposed legislation would earmark at least 30% of the allocated funds for communities upstate and outside of New York City, where qualified individuals were less likely to access relief in the first round, said Emma Kreyche, Director of Advocacy, Outreach, and Education at the Worker Justice Center of New York. By addressing regional disparities in access, the fund would become more equitable.

Even further, the coalition hopes to parlay their past victory into longer-term protections for excluded workers, curtailing the precarity that plagued them long before COVID-19.

“We don’t need more relief programs. We need structural change and we need equity,” said Angeles Solis, a lead organizer with Fund Excluded Workers, during a February interview with The Capitol Press Room. “We are talking about billions of dollars that have been put into social safety net programs that thousands of people cannot access. The passage of a permanent solution that will ensure that thousands of workers who contribute to our social safety net are covered in the social safety net.”

The FEW Coalition’s proposed unemployment insurance program would use similar eligibility requirements as the Excluded Workers Fund to disburse $1,200 monthly payments to below-median-earning workers whose immigration status, cash payment, self-employment, or misclassification exclude them from traditional unemployment compensation. The FEW Coalition estimates this would cost $800 million to serve 50,000 people in its first year.

Experts believe that funding excluded workers would have a significant positive effect on labor arrangements – by empowering workers and regulating contractors. The Laborer’s Local 79 union leader Mike Prohaska called the bill “commonsense” for the largely immigrant-staffed “nonunion construction workforce.”

“It will also close the gap between union and nonunion contractors, enabling undocumented workers to file for unemployment benefits, organize more freely on the job, and contribute more to our state’s economy and recovery after COVID,” Prohaska said. The law would also “level the playing field for responsible contractors who support their workers, regardless of immigration status, by paying into workers’ compensation, unemployment and payroll taxes.”

On March 14, New York lawmakers released one-house budget resolutions that largely exclude coalition demands. Instead, they aligned with Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed $2 billion for various “pandemic recovery initiatives,” far less than the $3 billion the FEW Coalition has requested for the Excluded Worker Fund alone, despite the state’s rare budget surplus.

Regardless of what budget emerges, the FEW Coalition has situated their policy goals within the greater fight for racial and economic justice statewide, collaborating with legislative campaigns for universal healthcarehigher wagessafer working conditions, and fairer housing.

To increase pressure on their elected representatives, the FEW Coalition will soon embark on a 150-mile march from New York City to Albany. They plan to arrive in the state’s capitol on March 29, in time for an eleventh-hour push for essential workers to get their due in the final budget.

“Just because people are moving on doesn’t mean that we can ignore this issue,” said Kreyche. “There are people who still have not gotten relief from two years ago. We need to be able to make those people whole to truly move on from this pandemic.”

Bella DeVaan is an Inequality.org Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. You can follow her on Twitter at @bdevaan.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.