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Lawmakers start $3B push to revive Excluded Workers Fund

ALBANY — A group of New York workers shouted outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, pleading for Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to listen.

Several undocumented immigrants and cash-economy workers — otherwise known as excluded workers — rallied in East Capitol Park for an additional $3 billion in the Excluded Workers Fund in the 2022-23 fiscal year budget that deadlines April 1.

Their cries were heard around the state in various cities after Hochul did not include funding when the state has a multi-billion-dollar surplus.

“The problem is, the governor is not listening,” Nelson, an undocumented worker from Columbia County who is a member of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, said in Spanish outside the state Capitol Wednesday.

Nelson received Excluded Workers Fund relief for himself and his family when the program opened last year, but he is rallying for additional funding so his fellow excluded workers, who he referred to as brothers and sisters, can get the same aid.

“The governor is not listening to the problem,” Nelson said. “… This is a precise moment — a moment when people say ‘I can’t take it anymore.'”

The state sponsored $2.1 billion in COVID-19 relief to the fund for New Yorkers barred from receiving unemployment insurance benefits and protections who lost wages or income because of COVID-related unemployment, inability to work or a COVID-related death or disability of the main source of household income.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants and excluded workers did not get the relief they were eligible for after the fund was depleted within nine weeks.

Excluded workers include migrant farm, construction, janitorial and other essential laborers ineligible to receive unemployment benefits or other past federal coronavirus aid.

Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan, and Assemblymembers Marcela Mitaynes, D-Brooklyn, Harvey Epstein, D-Manhattan, and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, D-Queens, rallied for additional Excluded Workers Fund relief Wednesday.

Legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly majority conferences have refused to answer questions about their position to legislate additional monies to the Excluded Workers Fund.

“The conference will support it, in my opinion, the question is by how much, and that’s, I guess, the question,” Jackson said. “But the need to do this is apparent, as far as how many people applied for it compared to received it before the money went out.”

Other lawmakers expressed confidence that additional relief for excluded workers would be included in the upcoming $216.3 billion spending plan, arguing former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also did not include the fund in his executive proposal last year, but legislators got it done during negotiations.

“It wasn’t included last year, either, so we have to do our job here,” Epstein said. “And that’s our job, is to ensure that New Yorkers who struggled during the pandemic get the resources they need.”

Hochul earmarked $2 billion in her executive proposal released Tuesday for statewide pandemic relief available for any coronavirus relief spending. The governor did not specifically carve out money in her 2022-23 budget for the Excluded Workers Fund, Emergency Rental Assistance Program or other programs, but how to use the $2 billion is up for negotiation with lawmakers in the coming months.

Hochul’s office on Wednesday referred questions to statements made Tuesday by state Budget Director Robert F. Mujica Jr. after the executive budget’s release.

“It’s a conversation that we welcome to have with the Legislature, whether there are other coronavirus-related spending items that other people are talking about,” Mujica said. “But, the responsible thing was like to set this money aside and let’s have the conversation with the legislature about what their priorities are.”

Republicans were strongly against the Excluded Workers Fund and related relief for undocumented immigrants, especially at the height of budget talks during the 2021 legislative session.

“Spoiler alert: We’re gonna be against it,” Senate Minority Leader Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said about the fund at an unrelated press conference Wednesday.

“We were against it because it’s just fundamentally wrong,” he added. “We’re going to lay aside $2.1 billion for unemployment benefits to those who are here and not U.S. citizens, and we laid out a couple million dollars for veterans, or the (Joseph P.) Dwyer program for post traumatic stress services. So Americans, American New Yorkers, citizens, who defended and fought for this country, were worth $4 million. And non-U.S. citizens worth 2.1 billion.”

Advocates are pushing for a series of measures to pass this session to permanently legalize unemployment benefits, labor protections and more for undocumented workers, in addition to the $3 billion more in relief.

Ortt said that several instances of fraud found within the Excluded Worker Fund applications should give lawmakers pause.

“Our conference will continue to oppose that program,” Ortt said.

Advocates are also fighting for a bill dubbed “Excluded No More” to create an unemployment insurance fund to cover up to 50,000 workers in the state per month earning less than 80% or 100% of the state’s median individual earnings — or $45,000 and $56,000 a year, respectively.

The Republican leader also balked at the idea of a permanent unemployment insurance fund for undocumented workers and those currently excluded.

“It goes to show you this really wasn’t about all these driver’s licenses, your unemployment benefits, voting rights in New York City … all these things are really about conveying de facto citizenship to people who are not citizens,” Ortt said. “We don’t confer citizenship — that’s a federal thing — but this is a backdoor way to confer. You’ll get everything without being a citizen. … And it’s an insult to citizens of this country.”

“I think most workers will tell you, it’s wrong,” he added.

Lawmakers in support of the relief argue that humans cannot be illegal, or illegal citizens, in the place they live, work and call home.

The state Department of Labor approved 130,532 Excluded Workers Fund applications of 350,823 submitted, according to the department’s Excluded Workers Fund Dashboard.

Thousands of excluded workers — especially upstate — did not get relief from the initial Excluded Workers Fund program because of eligible New Yorkers recently learning about the benefit; transportation or language barriers; and difficulties securing necessary documentation to prove financial hardship during the pandemic.

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