Even as the pandemic devastated New York, leaving death and economic destruction in its wake, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were ineligible for either federal or state relief. According to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, an estimated 274,000 New York residents who lost work due to COVID-19 have been on their own because of either their immigration status or as a result of being incarcerated during the pandemic.
Now, dozens of those who have been ineligible for unemployment benefits and stimulus checks are on a “Fast for the Forgotten,” a hunger strike to demand New York State create a $3.5 billion fund to rectify this exclusion.
“We have led caravans, shut down bridges with high-risk undocumented people, mobilized marches, rallies, lobbied, and phone-banked,” says Angeles Solis, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant-led organization that is part of the Fund Excluded Workers (FEW) coalition pushing for the $3.5 billion fund. “None of these tactics have been enough,” she adds, explaining what led the coalition to launch a hunger strike, which is now entering its third week.
Solis says nearly 98 percent of Make the Road’s members, who include farmworkers, sex workers, street vendors, domestic workers, and restaurant workers, were ineligible for unemployment insurance during the pandemic. These groups have seen a steep drop in incomes, but without the ability to access government relief, they have had to rely on community organizations and one another to keep themselves afloat. As the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, another FEW coalition member, told Gothamist, “Families are spending the majority of their lives waiting in line for food.”
“The communities who kept America running for the past year have been left to die,” says Glenn Cantave, a member of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York who is on hunger strike in solidarity with excluded workers.
Solis estimates that there are around eighty-five hunger strikers and allied politicians who are fasting in solidarity with excluded workers. The coalition’s organizing has so far resulted in the State Senate and Assembly proposing a $2.1 billion fund “exclusively for the purpose of emergency wage replacement for these workers.” This plan would allow these workers to access up to $3,300 per month beginning from April 2021 through the end of the year.
While the $2.1 billion earmark is progress from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget, which included no money for these workers, the coalition hopes the final budget, which is due April 1, will include a $3.5 billion fund. That amount would allow those previously excluded from relief to access the same level of benefits received by other workers over the past year. It would be funded by taxes on the state’s superrich, many of whom have gotten even wealthier over the course of the pandemic even as millions of New Yorkers lost their jobs.
One obstacle to the plan’s inclusion in the final state budget is Governor Cuomo, who despite being accused of a growing number of incidents of sexual harassment as well as covering up nursing home deaths — not to mention failing to act aggressively to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in New York’s jails and prisons, where most incarcerated people continue to be deemed ineligible for the vaccine — remains in office.
“The only way that Andrew Cuomo moves is when the billionaire class tells him to,” says Cantave, the hunger striker. “They say ‘Jump,’ he says, ‘How high?’”
Despite the governor’s opposition, the FEW coalition has growing support, including from the likes of State Senator Julia Salazar, Zephyr Teachout, and Cynthia Nixon. On Monday, elected officials including State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa — the lead sponsors of legislation to support excluded workers — as well as Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes, who has been fasting with workers, held a press conference demanding the $3.5 billion fund be included in the final budget.
“We want a $3.5 billion fund, [the] first in the nation,” said Assembly Member De La Rosa at the press conference. “No tricks, no traps. Let’s tax the rich, and feed the people.”
According to speakers at the rally, Governor Cuomo is now pushing for more onerous documentation requirements than are laid out in the current proposals. As City & State reports, this documentation would mean individuals would be required to produce “pay stubs, bank statements or individual tax identification numbers in order to prove financial hardship or loss of income during the pandemic,” which would be an obstacle for many undocumented workers, day laborers, domestic workers, and delivery drivers, who lack such paperwork. Advocates say such a requirement would play out in a similar way to the state’s troubled rent relief program, excluding many individuals from accessing relief.
“This is a moment of mass inequality and desperation,” says Make the Road’s Solis. “Our leaders have to choose who they’re going to protect: the pandemic profiteers or the working people.”