Street vendors, laundry workers, house cleaners and taxi drivers from across New York were among the hundreds of demonstrators who blocked traffic on the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges Friday morning, demanding New York State legislators create a fund for undocumented workers and others left out of economic relief packages since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to eat, we need to pay our rent, we want our work to be recognized,” said Ana Ramirez, 42, an immigrant from Mexico. “I have paid taxes for the past 20 years and have not received any government assistance.”
As Congress is on the brink of passing another federal coronavirus relief package that includes direct payments to most American citizens, the coalition of workers rallied in support of a measure currently before the New York State legislature, the Invest in Our New York Act. This bundle of six bills would increase taxes on wealthy New Yorkers and raise $50 billion to help rebuild the city’s vulnerable communities. Advocates say that amount would also be enough to create a $3.5 billion excluded workers fund that could distribute monthly payments to those who don’t qualify for existing wage assistance programs. Establishment of a fund for excluded workers is also called for in a separate bill introduced by State Senator Jessica Ramos last month.
Immigrant communities and people of color have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, yet the majority are ineligible for unemployment insurance or federal stimulus packages because of their undocumented status. Of the 1.2 million New Yorkers excluded by the CARES Act, nearly 70% were undocumented, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
“We have folks waiting for hours every day to get a bag of food, folks who are facing illegal evictions, who can’t even pay the Wi-Fi for their kids to learn in school,” said Julissa Bisono, associate director of organizing at Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization focused on immigrant issues. “Many of these people are also essential workers who have been putting their bodies on the line.”
Demonstrators from multiple organizations gathered in Camden Plaza in Brooklyn before marching towards the bridges. Holding signs demanding that the rich be taxed, the rent cancelled and the excluded workers helped, they chanted “The people united will never be defeated” as drums beat loudly.
The rally was organized by the Fund Excluded Workers coalition, a group of organizations that has led about 25 mobilizations in the past year to advocate for the thousands of New Yorkers who’ve been shut out of government assistance despite their contributions to the economy. A report from the Fiscal Policy Institute found last May that, over the last decade, $1.4 billion were paid in unemployment insurance taxes based on the work of undocumented immigrants.
“Undocumented or not, we still work in this country. The government has only helped a certain group of people and that’s not fair,” said Patricia Avendano, 41, lead organizer for New York Communities for Change.
Ramirez, who is undocumented and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, said she owes her landlord about $6,000 in rent. When New York City shut down in March, she temporarily lost her dishwashing job at a restaurant in Times Square and started cleaning houses for $13 an hour, below the city’s minimum wage.
“I now work at the restaurant once a week,” she said. Before the pandemic, Ramirez said she was earning about $600 a week (or $2,400 a month), but she now makes about $120 a week. Her husband, a food runner at a restaurant in NoHo, was also unemployed at the height of the pandemic. He now earns about $500 a week, she said.
While millions of jobless New Yorkers began filing for unemployment last April, undocumented workers like Ramirez received no assistance to cushion the blow. They say they have relied on family members, breadlines and nonprofits to survive. In 2020, Make the Road New York distributed 1,100 food bags per week and $4.5 million in cash to over 6,000 households across the city.
“Thousands of people would line up at the pantry next to my home,” said Ramirez. “I had to wake up at 4 a.m. to stand in line.”
Several elected officials, who have called on the state government to finance the fund in the upcoming executive budget, joined the march on Friday.
“How disgusting is it for the federal government to say that these people don’t need any help?” said Jumaane Williams, New York City’s Public Advocate. “Unfortunately, it is an American way to think, but it’s disgusting nonetheless.”
On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new $29 million program to assist essential workers and first responders, but it is unclear if undocumented workers and others who have been excluded from previous emergency aid will benefit from it.
“From the early, dark days of this pandemic, our essential workers have been on the front lines risking their health and safety every day to keep this state running,” Cuomo said. The Center for Migration studies estimates that of the 1.8 million foreign-born New Yorkers that work in essential jobs, nearly 20% are undocumented. Cuomo’s office did not respond to queries regarding undocumented workers’ eligibility to apply for this new funding.
Shortly after marching across both bridges into Manhattan, the rally ended and workers quickly scattered along Centre Street and into the subway. Ramirez took the train back to Brooklyn with three of her friends. “We are working people, but they don’t want to recognize our labor,” she said. “In a global economy like the United States this kind of discrimination shouldn’t exist.”