ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO: Inclusion in the state budget of the Excluded Worker Fund Act providing replacement wages for undocumented workers who either became ill during the coronavirus pandemic or lost jobs because their employers closed up shop was a priority for a coalition of unions and immigrant-rights activists. They continue to press for approval of the NY HERO Act, which would establish workplace-safety standards to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Some of the state's biggest unions played a leading role in obtaining a $2.1-billion relief bill for hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic and were excluded from the American Rescue Plan.

The program, agreed to as part of the state budget deal, is the first of its kind.

Dubbed the Excluded Worker Fund Act, it will provide thousands of dollars in wage replacement aid for immigrant workers who can't collect unemployment.

A Labor Priority

Unions including Service Employees International Union Locals 1199 and 32BJ, District Council 37 and Communications Workers of America District 1 joined 150 immigrant-rights groups and community-based organizations in a letter to Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders urging them to adopt the measure as part of what turned out to be a $212-billion state budget.

The letter stated, "Many excluded workers worked in essential jobs serving and protecting the rest of us during the peaks of the pandemic; yet if they became too ill to continue working, or lost their jobs or hours as businesses shuttered, they still were blocked from accessing the basic unemployment relief that the rest of us depend on to survive during the darkest times. "

The letter continued noted that "undocumented immigrants' employers have contributed over $1.4 billion into the unemployment system over the past 10 years on behalf of workers that are not eligible to collect."

Other union signatories included the New York State Nurses Association, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the Professional Staff Congress, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Construction & General Building Laborers' Local 79.

The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa.

What They Must Verify

The program, which will be administered by the New York State Department of Labor, will require applicants to verify their identity, addresses, and employment histories. Benefit payments will range from $3,200 to $15,600.

A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a pro-labor non-profit think tank, estimates the measure will help 290,000 undocumented immigrants around the state, 213,000 in New York City, 35,000 on Long Island and 20,000 in the lower Hudson Valley.

FPI estimated that undocumented New Yorkers pay $1.1 billion annually in state and local taxes.

"Society has a moral responsibility to care for those in need who were excluded from Federal aid," wrote John Samuelsen, president of the Transportation Workers Union International, when asked to weigh in on the initiative.

During an April 6 phone interview, Queens State Senator John C. Liu said labor's role in winning passage of the measure was not surprising.

'Labor Sees Bigger Picture'

"Labor unions have always played an important role in.... recognizing the value added by all workers beyond just their own members, and the labor-union support for the excluded workers seems to be born of solidarity," he said, noting that religious leaders also played a pivotal lobbying role.

Mr. Liu added that the fund's establishment acknowledged "the vital part of the economy that immigrants contribute. The whole notion of government assistance during a pandemic and depression is not entirely charitable. It's in large part to make sure the economy doesn't bottom out."

The fund is part of a broader immigrant/labor agenda which also includes winning passage of the New York HERO Act, which would establish minimum workplace-safety standards to prevent the spread of the coronavirus or other infectious diseases.

Maritza Silva-Farrell is the executive director of ALIGN, a labor and immigrant rights group, said in a statement, "From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York's more than two million essential workers have been on the front lines helping to keep the rest of us safe, and more than half of them are undocumented immigrants...Now, these same workers have made history, winning the first-in-the-nation excluded workers fund for New York State."

Continues a Trend

Joshua B. Freeman, labor historian and professor emeritus of history at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, saw labor's support of the bill as part of a trend that "started to really happen sometime ago—when the center of gravity within the labor movement had shifted and the AFL-CIO, and many of its constituent unions, moved away from trying to limit undocumented immigration to...embrace all workers, whether or not they were documented, both because they were workers and to keep them from undercutting conditions for other workers." 

"In today's polarized social environment, it's absolutely essential for organized labor's survival and growth to dynamically engage with undocumented immigrant communities," wrote Joseph Wilson, labor historian in an email. "In fact, so-called 'undocumented communities' are synonymous with and largely indistinguishable from broader working-class communities of color, especially in the urban service sectors and extending to rural agricultural communities."

In contrast, The Excluded Worker Fund Act was denounced by the state Republican Party as the work of "extreme leftists."

State Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy described state legislators as "even more radical than the Biden-Harris Administration" because the budget "raises taxes on New Yorkers and businesses by $4 billion while enacting a $2-billion fund that will provide $25,000 payouts to illegal immigrants."

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