ALBANY — Jairo Reyes did not eat for three days. Weak, tired and famished, he remembered his community when he found it difficult to focus.
Reyes, of Yonkers, was one of hundreds of New Yorkers to participate in a 22-day statewide hunger strike to raise awareness for funding for thousands of state essential workers excluded from unemployment benefits or stimulus checks for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.
The hunger pains, Reyes said, were worth it.
The state Legislature included a one-time $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund in its final 2021-22 budget, which the Assembly was expected to adopt Wednesday, for New York residents who lost wages or income after February 2020 because of COVID-19-related unemployment or inability to work or a COVID-related death or disability of the main source of household income.
“I was very emotional when I first heard about the fund,” Reyes, who does not speak English, said through Jirandy Martinez, executive director of the Mamaroneck Community Resource Center, who translated. “I was so emotional and very happy because what that fund means is now, worker families can have a little bit of extra income to support their families and they get something for their children, for food and to pay rent.”
The $2.1 billion will come from state tax revenue, including new higher taxes on state millionaires and billionaires set to impact about 50,000 of 19.4 million New Yorkers. The state will net $2.75 billion from increases on personal income tax this year, and $3.25 billion next year.
“I did it to support my community,” Reyes added of the fast. “I knew putting my body on the line would be not just for me, but keeping in mind all of the worker families and community that have been excluded from their state government, and even nationwide, for many, many years. I was doing it for my worker community and representing them.”
About 160,000 New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants and cash economy workers, can apply for Excluded Workers Fund benefits. The excluded workers include migrant farm, construction, janitorial and other essential laborers.
Workers can be eligible for two tiers of benefits awarded by a point system with required documentation. Workers must have filed a tax return for 2018, 2019 and 2020 using a valid ITIN number, provide a letter from an employer showing dates of work or six weeks of pay stubs to prove residency.
They will be eligible for $15,600 total benefit pre-taxes, equivalent to $300/week over the course of 52 weeks, in the first tier or $3,200 total benefit pre-taxes in the second tier.
The benefits will be taxed at about 5%, or similar to federal unemployment insurance.
Reyes worked as a welder for nine years, but his employer required him to quarantine for two weeks, twice, after his father-in-law became infected with COVID-19 last spring. Reyes wasn’t allowed to return to work even after proving he was not sick. His company’s secretary suggested they had too many older people working there, and suggested he apply for unemployment, he said.
Reyes has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, but not a Social Security Number. A Social Security Number is required for unemployment benefits, so he decided to strike.
Several state agencies will review applications for fraud. The program will not be implemented until state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli conducts and state Attorney General Letitia James’s Office each conduct separate reviews, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
“It is difficult to do it in a way that can be administered without fraud, and that’s obviously a major concern for us that we protect every tax dollar,” the governor said during a budget briefing Wednesday, adding the state had significant fraudulent unemployment applications through the COVID-19 pandemic.
DiNapoli and James’s reviews will include program guidelines, rules and anti-fraud protections.
“We want 100% integrity for tax dollars,” Cuomo said. “Until the Attorney General reviews and signs off on the program, we will not implement the program, because we want New Yorkers to know, yes, we’re compassionate and we’re doing the right thing, but we’re also doing it smartly and intelligently, and the Attorney General’s approval of the program will do just that.”
State Attorney General Letitia James assured New Yorkers her office will ensure the fund will be distributed through an equitable process in a statement Wednesday night.
“Upon review of the excluded worker legislation in the budget, we believe the Office of the Attorney General’s role will be to ensure the integrity of the process by verifying whether the regulations and the process being established are constitutional,” James said. “These duties are in line with our traditional role, and we look forward to performing them.”
Nelson, a Stottville resident and father of three who is a member of Columbia County Sanctuary Movement. spoke and marched at various local events at the state Capitol over the last two weeks leading up to the budget’s passage. He participated in a day-long hunger strike in solidarity with the excluded workers in New York City.
Representatives with the sanctuary movement withheld Nelson’s last name due to his immigration status.
“It helps me not just economically, but mentally,” he said after hearing of the $2.1 billion fund’s passage. “It is hard to live with the burden of knowing you have to pay a bill and not being able to do it.
“We are very happy, we just hope that the funds are distributed well and fairly,” he said.
A person cannot have received unemployment insurance or federal COVID-related stimulus checks or aid, and cannot have earned more than $26,208 within the last year to be eligible for the funding.
Republicans and Democrats engaged in tense and spirited discussion about the excluded worker fund as session continued early Wednesday morning.
Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Castleton, voted against the revenue bill that includes the Excluded Worker Fund. The fund was one of the most contentious issues in negotiating the nearly one-week late $212 billion spending plan.
“In this scheme, the Majority wants to hand out $2.1 billion of taxpayer’s money to illegal immigrants and others,” Jordan said on the floor early Wednesday morning. “Who says crime doesn’t pay? In New York, state crime sure does pay.
“…Illegal immigrants are just that — they’re illegal,” she added. “Each day they’re here, they’re breaking the law — our nation’s laws. They’re not supposed to be working and their employers are also breaking the law by paying them under the table. This sets up an unemployment fund for those working illegally and those employers who have never paid into the unemployment insurance fund for them. Think about all we should be spending this $2.1 on.”
Jordan expressed frustration about the required documentation for people to apply.
“Applicants would not be required to prove they are in the United States lawfully to be eligible,” she said. “There’s lowering the bar, and then there’s burying it. And this buries it.”
The fund, she added, “is a carrot to all those coming into our country thanks to our current border crisis. New York, we’re saying, is open for business.”
Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, said in a statement Wednesday he is concerned the combination of tax and spending increases will cause people to leave the state. New York has the nation’s highest rate of outmigration.
“Much of this tax revenue will support the creation of a $2.1 billion fund that will allow individuals who were ineligible for unemployment insurance during the pandemic to receive payouts of up to $15,000 per person,” Borrello said. “This is a politically-driven item with an unacceptably high price tag, particularly with our state’s unemployment insurance fund depleted by the unprecedented demand of the pandemic. Struggling small businesses are now being hit with insurance rate increases that threaten their survival.”
Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, said no person is illegal.
“These are beings, these are people, these are workers,” the senator said before voting for the fund he helped to negotiate. “They’re excluded and they are essential — essential because at the height of the pandemic when many of us were stuck at home…who was delivering our food? Who was picking the vegetables and the fruits we continued to eat during the pandemic?
“We’re making history today and I feel proud of that.”
Activists pushed for a $3.5 billion Excluded Worker Fund, but legislative leaders compromised on the Assembly’s original $2.1 billion proposal.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, released in January, did not include the Excluded Workers Fund. Formerly incarcerated people remain ineligible for the Legislature’s $2.1 billion agreement.