Photo: Maria del Mar Piedrabuena

Workers’ rights advocates, faith leaders and immigrant allies rallied last Thursday to call on state legislators for the creation of a $3.5 billion fund that would provide economic relief for essential workers that did not receive any help from the state or federal government during the pandemic—either because of their immigration status or because they were recently released from incarceration.

“Excluded workers were feeding us, and nobody was feeding them. They were still continuing to work in the restaurants, in the supermarkets, in the factories and all of these industries, and there are so many people that ended up losing their jobs and had no ability to recover any of what they lost,“ executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice Ani Halasz said. ”This is critical not just because we are supporting our fellow neighbors and our communities, but it is also critical for our local economy.“

Currently, the Senate and Assembly have each included a $2.1 billion fund for excluded workers as part of their state budget bills. However, even though worker’s rights advocates applauded the inclusion of that provision on the budget—especially since Governor Andrew Cuomo had not considered it in his proposal back in January— they warned that that amount is not nearly enough to cover the months excluded workers and their families have been without relief. The state budget deadline is April 1.

“It’s important that our state officials recognize that what they’re offering is not nearly enough. It barely even covers what was lost in 2020 and we are now four months in still without relief and we need to keep putting pressure on them to recognize that we need more,” Halasz said.

According to advocates, under the $3.5 billion plan, those who are eligible would receive retroactive payments starting next month, followed by flat monthly payments through the remainder of the year that would be “equivalent to the minimum unemployment benefit in New York plus federal unemployment boost that all eligible unemployed Americans have received.”

Heidi, a Riverhead resident, mother of a 6-year-old and excluded worker who spoke at the rally on Thursday said that she supported the creation of the fund because it would give people “hope and life-saving help.”

Heidi said in an interview that she had been working as a hotel housekeeper for the past several years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our area in March of 2020, paralyzing businesses and closing schools throughout the region.

At first she said she tried to maintain her job. The hotel where she worked didn’t close as it was considered an essential business. Heidi said she saw people who went to isolate there if they suspected they had COVID, or traveling healthcare workers who came to regional hospitals to assist. Personal protective equipment was scarce on those days, she said, and masks were not required. As the weeks passed, her situation became untenable. She couldn’t keep paying for someone to look after her child since schools were closed, bringing him to work was impossible and every day she grew more fearful of getting infected with the virus and bringing it home to her family.

By late April, unable to reach an agreement with her employer, she quit her job.

“I remember knowing that if I quit working our money situation at home was going to be so hard, but I had no other choices. I had to take care of my son and I was very afraid of getting infected,” she said.

As an undocumented immigrant Heidi was not able to obtain unemployment or temporary leave benefits. She also was excluded from receiving checks during the several rounds of stimulus relief from the federal government even though her son is a U.S. citizen. Desperate, she turned to local churches and organizations for help. Whenever she could, she picked up food and other goods, often waiting in long lines, to get her ration. She cut expenses everywhere she could to save money, she said. Thanks to Rural & Migrant Ministry in Riverhead, she was able to obtain cloth masks for her and her family. Last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas gifts and her growing son’s winter jacket also came courtesy of donations. Her husband resumed working, but almost everything he made went to rent, Heidi said.

A year later, Heidi is still unemployed and she still struggling to put food on the table.

Workers and immigrant advocates said Thursday that Heidi’s situation replicates across communities on Long Island. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute report, in Suffolk county there are about 17,000 excluded workers, including formerly incarcerated people and undocumented immigrants, who would benefit if the fund is created. In New York state there are about 274,000 people who are considered excluded workers.

Workers’ advocates were also joined at the rally by faith leaders from various denominations, who expressed their support for the fund. They leaded a Jericho Walk, offered prayers and praises and delivered a letter to legislators that had been signed by over 116 faith representatives from all over Long Island including Riverhead’s First Baptist Church Pastor Charles A. Coverdale and Rev. Cynthia Liggon, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island Bishop’s Vicar for Hispanic Ministry of the East End Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia and St. John the Evangelist Msgr. John I Cervini.

New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele also expressed his support in a statement and said that “this was an important piece of legislation” that will “assist individuals that find themselves currently without help.”

“I am also thrilled that the Assembly budget proposal includes over $2 billion to create a fund for New Yorkers who have not had access to unemployment, federal stimulus funds, and other assistance programs throughout the pandemic,” said Thiele. “As we finally begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, we must ensure that we remove all barriers to economic recovery and help all New Yorkers get back on their feet.”

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria