Update: On October 8th, two days after this article was originally published, the New York State Department of Labor stopped accepting new applications for the Excluded Workers Fund.
In April of this year, New York created a first-in-the-nation “Excluded Workers Fund,” allocating $2.1 billion to provide cash relief to New Yorkers, primarily undocumented immigrants, who were unable to access previous rounds of state and federal COVID-19 relief.
Now, in the face of unexpected demand and a high approval rate, the funds are running out. More than 335,000 people have submitted applications for funds, and thousands more submit applications each day. But about $1.8 billion has already been disbursed or promised to the 116,000 applicants approved so far, leaving just $300 million for the rest.
The Department of Labor warned on Monday that the fund could be closed to new applicants as soon as Wednesday. The fund was still accepting applications as of Wednesday afternoon, but the department’s website said that “Soon new applications will no longer be accepted.”
And while the Department has guaranteed full payment of all approved applications submitted before September 24, payment of the tens of thousands of applications submitted after that date—and those that continue to be submitted—is uncertain.
Among the New Yorkers who may miss out on relief payments is Afshana Pervin, a single mother and undocumented Bangladeshi immigrant from Jamaica, Queens, who has lived in the U.S. for twenty-six years.
After losing her job as a caterer due to the pandemic, Pervin joined the coalition fighting for the creation of the Excluded Workers Fund, and went on hunger strike for three days leading up to its enactment.
But due to her lack of formal identification, she has so far found herself shut out from the fund she fought to create.
“I have not been able to apply for the Excluded Worker Fund, because I am still waiting on my passport from the Bangladeshi consulate. They told me it’ll take anywhere from two to four more months,” she said through an interpreter at a rally held Tuesday in New York City’s Washington Square Park.
By the time Pervin obtains the passport, the fund’s coffers may be empty.
Pervin and other undocumented workers, along with their advocates and allies in the state legislature, are pushing for a fresh infusion to the fund to ensure all applicants receive the full amount they’re eligible for. Vanessa Agudelo, a member of the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition’s steering committee, said the coalition hasn’t yet put forward an estimate of how much this would cost, but that it would be in the billions.
Some observers charge that the fund’s depletion is a result of poor management of the initial $2.1 billion. A Daily News editorial criticized state administrators for granting virtually all approved applicants so far the maximum amount of relief, rather than lower amounts, noting that the decision is “set to leave thousands of eligible workers with diddly squat.”
The fund was one of the most contentious items in the 2021 budget. About thirty Democrats in the state Assembly—nearly a third of the body’s Democrats—held a private meeting shortly before the budget was voted on to discuss their concerns with the fund, the Capitol Pressroom reported.
But now that the program is underway, some initial critics said they were open to its expansion. Assemblymember Tom Abinanti (D-Westchester), who was a target of activists’ ire for withholding support for the fund during budget negotiations, told New York Focus that he supports an expansion if additional money is necessary to meet demonstrated need.
“I think that we have to properly fund all of the programs that we put forward from the budget. And if there’s insufficient money for any of them—and that includes the excluded workers and the rent [assistance] programs—then we need to put more money in,” Abinanti said.
“We set up a program. It’s unfair to say that the first people in are the ones who get the money, and the others who did not get in don’t get the money,” he added.
Other lawmakers reported to have opposed or raised doubts about the fund, including Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), John McDonald (D-Albany), and Phil Steck (D-Albany County), declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.
A spokesperson for Governor Kathy Hochul lauded the progress of the fund, but did not address questions about whether the governor supports expanding it.
“Within the next few weeks, more than $2 billion, the maximum amount authorized by the State legislature, will have reached the pockets of hardworking families across the state. The Governor remains focused on helping our most vulnerable communities as we continue to rebuild and recover from the pandemic,” said Hochul press secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays.
A High Approval Rate
When it was created in April, the fund included a two-tiered system for accessing cash benefits. Workers with the ability to provide formal attestation of employment or tax processing information were to be eligible for up to $15,600 in cash benefits, while those unable to do so would be eligible for $3,200.
The tiered system was pushed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration and opposed by the fund’s proponents, who worried that many people in need of relief would be unable to access the first tier.
In the months since, however, both applications and approvals for the first tier have dramatically outpaced expectations. In April, the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank that was part of the coalition advocating for the fund, estimated that 92,000 New Yorkers would qualify for the first tier and 199,000 would qualify for the second, which would have resulted in a total budget just short of the allocated $2.1 billion.
But the Department of Labor has so far granted the higher level of relief to over 99% of approved applicants—more than 115,000 New Yorkers.
Advocates celebrated the high approval rates and credited it to the new governor. “Governor Hochul has prioritized getting money out of the door for the Excluded Workers Fund in a way that Governor Cuomo simply refused to do,” Guerrero said.
“We were under the impression that the regulations were going to be very strict and provide a lot of obstacles,” Agudelo said, explaining why disbursals have far outpaced projections.
Expanding the fund to provide for the remaining applicants would likely require new taxes to be included in next year’s state budget, state Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), the primary Senate sponsor of the bill that created the fund, told New York Focus. “I can’t really see how we’re able to close [the] budget deficit and be able to increase our fund unless we make the rich pay their fair share,” she said.
Another prominent progressive said that expanding the fund might be possible without new taxes. “I think they can find the money for it either from the increased tax revenues from last year’s tax hikes or from some appropriate revenue increases in the coming year,” said Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition.
Budget analysts at the Citizens Budget Commission and the Empire Center for Public Policy, two influential fiscally conversative think tanks, declined to comment or did not reply to questions about the proposed expansion.
Proponents hope that additional funds can be found before New York’s next budget is enacted in April 2022, but some acknowledge that timeline is unlikely.
“Adding money to the program before the next budget cycle would mean that it would likely have to happen through an executive order or an extraordinary session of the legislature. I don’t see that happening,” Ramos said.
Ramos said her primary goal is to determine the amount of additional funding needed to meet the needs of all eligible excluded workers, and to increase the size of the fund in New York’s 2022 budget by that amount.
Outreach and Eligibility
In addition to expanding the size of the program, the fund’s supporters are also calling for tweaks in implementation that would enable more people to apply.
Ramos called for increased efforts at publicizing the fund outside of the New York City area, where she said fewer people have heard of it. “There’s so much more outreach to be done upstate and out in Suffolk County, for example,” she said.
Other workers have heard about it, but have been unable to apply. Workers who are paid in cash, off the books, have struggled to access either tier of the fund, due to requirements enforced by the Department of Labor that applicants submit documents proving their employment history, coalition leaders said.
While work-arounds exist, coalition leaders hope that an expanded fund would also allow for workers to self-attest their employment histories, under penalty of perjury.
The Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment on this possibility, but Agudelo said that administrators have signalled they may be open to it.
“Workers have been waiting to apply because the Department of Labor in some instances has said that they’re trying to work with us and see if they can make these changes,” she said.
This article has been updated to clarify proponents’ estimates of how much expanding the fund to cover all eligible applicants could cost.