Westchester elected officials, community members and undocumented workers held a rally in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in White Plains on Oct. 12 to call on Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to expand the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF)’s cash flow.
The $2.1 billion fund, which was approved by the state in the spring, provides undocumented New York residents who were not eligible for and did not receive COVID-19 economic relief from the state or federal government the ability to recoup lost income.
According to the Department of Labor website, applications already submitted will be processed in the order they were received. However, for claims submitted after Sept. 24, there is no guarantee funds will be available.
“Given the demand, given the success of this program, it is clear that $2.1 billion will not be enough,” said Janet Fry, deputy executive director of the Mamaroneck-based Community Resource Center. “We knew about this before the state budget passed,
and we are sure of it right now.”
“Gov. Hochul, please hear the voices of this community full of workers who need those funds now for their survival,” Fry added.
Roberto Zumba, the worker center coordinator at Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco, said all people should have an opportunity for financial recovery.
“Thousands of people were excluded despite paying into the social safety net,” Zumba said. “The social safety net needs to include me and all my neighbors.”
Many excluded workers who participated in a 23-day hunger strike last spring to advocate for the funds spoke about how crucial it was for their survival, calling on Hochul to expand funding so more workers’ lives could be helped.
Fry said funds were used by many to pay debt accrued during the pandemic, purchase laptops for children to attend virtual classes, help workers remove themselves from unsafe working conditions and allow survivors of domestic violence to move away from their abuser and rebuild.
“It wasn’t easy to get the first $2.1 billion, but we heard today that it saved people’s lives,” state Sen. Shelly Mayer (D-Yonkers) said. “And we have more people’s lives to save.”
In Westchester, Mayer said 2,738 people who applied have already received their funds. However, 13,357 eligible Westchester residents applied before the applications were shut off, and many are now waiting in limbo to see if the Department of Labor will process their claims.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), chair of the Committee on Labor, sent a letter to Hochul encouraging her to increase the amount of money in the fund, which Mayer and 13 other state lawmakers signed onto.
“New York led the nation this past spring when we established the most robust excluded workers fund in the country,” said Amy Rivera, bilingual community liaison for Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford). “We can be proud of that, but it’s not enough.”
“While 80 percent of the beneficiaries (of the EWF) are New York City residents, the unmet need is great in the entire state, including here in Westchester County,” Rivera added. “We cannot turn our backs on that need.”
Board of Legislators Majority Leader MaryJane Shimsky (D-Dobbs Ferry), said that so many essential workers put their own and their family’s lives on the line when COVID-19 hit.
“This helps everyone, and I hope that the state legislature and the governor will find a way to put more funds into this vital and badly needed program,” Shimsky said.
County Legislator Nancy Barr (D-Rye Brook) commended how far the EWF initially went but echoed other speakers’ sentiments that the $2.1 billion was insufficient.
“There’s a lot of other people who earned this money, and they deserve to have it,” Barr said.
Manuel Ospina, a construction laborer and member of Don Bosco Workers in Port Chester, said that during the beginning of the pandemic, he was unable to find any work.
“During those times, it became really hard to make even $200,” Ospina said. “And of course, I got late with the rent and everything.”
The fund, Ospina said, will help him get back on his feet, especially after Hurricane Ida. The basement where Ospina lived took on eight feet of water.
“I’m basically homeless,” Ospina said, sharing that currently, he’s staying in his friend’s living room.
Expanding the EWF is essential to help workers like him make a long-term recovery, he said.
“We live from our paycheck,” Ospina said. “What are people going to do without any kind of assistance? Just because they’re undocumented doesn’t mean they cannot be helped.”