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New York’s “Excluded Workers” Demand First U.S. Fund to Secure Pandemic Aid for Undocumented People

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Image Credit: Twitter: @FEWCoalition

More than a year into the pandemic and the economic crisis it generated, many workers continue to be excluded from receiving any government relief. These excluded workers include undocumented people — many of them in essential services — and people recently released from prison. Hundreds of essential workers across New York are leading marches and hunger strikes to demand lawmakers support a $3.5 billion fund that would be the first of its kind in the United States to provide pandemic relief funding to those excluded from the current system. Governor Andrew Cuomo is now in final negotiations with legislators on a budget bill that was due last month, which could issue payments to up to 275,000 people. “I truly believe that this is the job of government,” says Marcela Mitaynes, a New York assemblymember who is joining excluded workers in their hunger strike to push for pandemic relief and has called for a wealth tax to fund it. “We’re supposed to provide for our people. And this is a moment where we need to step up.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: More than a year into the pandemic and the economic crisis it generated, many workers continue to be excluded from receiving any government relief. These excluded workers include undocumented people, many of them in essential services, and people recently released from prison.

Well, on Monday in New York, hundreds of excluded workers from across the state marched to the Capitol of Albany in a final push to demand lawmakers support a $3.5 billion fund that would be the first of its kind in the United States to provide financial relief and healthcare to those shut out of the current system. Embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo is now in final negotiations with legislators on a budget bill that was due last month.

New York Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes has joined excluded workers in a weeks-long hunger strike urging support for the fund. She addressed Monday’s rally.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: There is plenty of money. What there isn’t is political courage to do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: A Democratic majority controls both legislative houses in New York, and Governor Cuomo is a Democrat. If passed, the state’s excluded workers fund could issue payments to as many as 275,000 people. Advocates say Governor Cuomo is pushing for a two-tiered system of access to the fund that would require burdensome proof-of-employment requirements for people who may not have access to bank records and pay stubs or other forms of identification. These are hunger-striking workers Ana Ramirez and Felipe Idrovo.

ANA RAMIREZ: [translated] There are many excluded workers, not just me. We’re thousands of families. We’re babysitters, domestic workers, construction workers, street vendors.

FELIPE IDROVO: [translated] I lost my job last March after eight years. My brother passed away. I was in the hospital with COVID. I lost my apartment in Woodside. I’m here to raise my voice and the voices of others. I’m in this fight in memory of my brother.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by New York Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, who, as we reported, is on hunger strike with the excluded workers. Before her election last year, she spent a decade as a tenant organizer. She immigrated to the United States from Peru with her family when she was a child, and many of her constituents are excluded workers. She’s also calling for a wealth tax. We’ll get into it all.

Assemblymember, thanks so much for joining us. You’re in what? Your 11th, 12th day of a hunger strike. And the other people, who, some in wheelchairs, rolled through the Capitol yesterday, are in the third week. There are 21 days of hunger strike. Talk about what you’re demanding.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: Good morning, and thank you for having me.

You know, we’re asking for $3.5 billion. That would be on par with what other New York state employees have received in unemployment benefits and also in stimulus assistance. So, we’re asking for folks that weren’t able to qualify for any federal or state assistance to be compensated in this way, for the money to be retroactive to April 2020 through September of this year, when the benefits are supposed to continue.

And so, what we’re asking is to give folks an opportunity, who are trying to get out of this pandemic, like we all are, who are facing obstacles that nobody expected, who are suffering at no fault of their own. You know, I truly believe that this is the job of government. We’re supposed to provide for our people. And this is a moment where we need to step up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Assemblywoman Mitaynes, how would the excluded workers fund function, given the fact that many of the folks, as has been noted, are not necessarily in the employment system per se in terms of verification, in terms of the number of children in their family? How would this fund work, from your understanding of it?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: So, what we’re hearing — and we’re still trying to fight this — is it’s a two-tier system, the first tier getting the bulk of the money. But they have to have an ITN number. They have to prove they were employed. They want pay stubs, a letter from an employee — all things that are going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to produce. And the second tier, who can’t produce the things, are going to get a very small amount.

And so, it just doesn’t seem right that at the time when the city was asked to shut down, when people of privilege were able to shelter in place, that folks that didn’t have any other options, that needed to continue working, did, that were exposed, that then got sick. It’s just not right, and it’s not fair that they’re not given an opportunity to fight this pandemic, as well.

And so, to me, the fact that folks have gone on 21 days of a hunger strike to try and call attention to this immense need — folks haven’t received any type of assistance for over a year, and these are families with children, family with elders. And so, what’s ended up happening is communities have had to step in. And what we’ve seen is mutual aid come into place and try and provide and help where the government has failed. And so, for those people that are on hunger strike for 21 days, who are doing this not just for themselves but for all their immigrant neighbors throughout the state of New York, it would just be a real shame that they would not be able to qualify for the assistance that they truly need.

And the way that I look at this, this is not just giving them money, but this is an investment in our community, investment in our future, because they will then take the money and put it back into the economy, which is what we need. And this is a way that we can all begin to work together and thrive and get back on our feet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how has Governor Cuomo responded to this, especially given the fact, obviously, he was citing a huge budget deficit in the coming years, but then there was a quite a bit of financial aid that came in President Biden’s recovery plan? What’s your sense of how the governor is responding to the budget impact of these — not only of this, but the rest of the budget that needs to be passed, should have been passed by April 1?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: It should have been passed, yes. Let’s understand that this governor has passed austerity budgets. And that’s 10 years of budget cuts — to truly important services and programs — that hurt our most needy. And so, his original proposal did not include a single dime for these excluded workers.

And so, what we’re doing is negotiating. And so, we’re hopeful. The Legislature had also — we had also proposed six different bills to tax the rich, that together would comprehensively change not just the progressive tax system, but over time would start chipping away at that income inequality.

And so, what we’re seeing is options on the table that are not fully being considered. What we’re seeing is where the governor’s priority is, because what he is pushing through is a $1.3 billion project for Penn Station where he’s talking about building 10 office towers. I’m not sure how the people of the state of New York, who are still hurting, who are still in need, who still need much, much more, are going to take to this budget with this proposal in it. And I’m very concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Reyna, an undocumented worker and activist with the immigrant rights group Make the Road. The group held a rally last month.

REYNA: [translated] I am scared right now because I owe two months of rent, and the landlord has been knocking on my door. I tell him, “Wait, wait.” But he says, “For how long? I am going to take you to court.” And in all truth, I am very scared, because I am struggling. I have a job for every eight days, working, making $80. And I can’t live off $80. … I am a household cleaner. I am excluded from government support. And so, that has a big impact on me, because I am a mother of two children.

AMY GOODMAN: Assemblymember Mitaynes, I have a friend who went to get a vaccine shot, as a bodega delivery person. And they came up to him on line and said, “Show me your pay stubs from the bodega.” And he said, “When was the last time you saw a pay stub from a bodega?” And they actually laughed. Ultimately, they let him go through. But this issue of documentation and what is needed in all aspects of life, and also this woman talking about rent. Your history, before you were an assemblywoman, is as a crusading tenant organizer, after your family lost their own home in Queens. Can you talk about that and how that fits into this picture?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: Yes. Actually, we lost our home in Sunset Park, where I continue to live. And it’s part of the community that I represent. You know, I deeply believe that housing is a human right. At the time that I got displaced, my daughter was 8 years old — the only home that she knew. And I had to sit down to her and explain to her what was happening. And that year, she learned two vocabulary words. She learned “gentrification,” and she learned “eviction.”

You know, people don’t understand how violent being evicted is and the trauma that that instills in you and how you carry that with you. And so, you know, it breaks my heart to hear what’s happening, although I’m also just very used to it. You know, we’re hearing things where landlords are telling tenants they don’t care that the governor has put an eviction moratorium. That’s their property, and they need their money. They’re being told, “You have credit cards. Use your credit cards.”

And so, what we’re trying to do is, really, what we should be focusing on is providing basics so that folks can get back on their feet, because what they want to do more than anything else is to be able to get back to work and pay their bills. But they can’t do that right now. And I think that it’s morally wrong for us to ask these people to work during the pandemic, and then now tell them that we can’t assist you, we can’t help you, because you don’t have the proper paperwork.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Assemblywoman, I wanted to ask you — you recently wrote an op-ed piece in The Indypendent in New York, where you talked about the root of inequality in our state being a regressive system of taxation. Could you talk about the initiatives that are being attempted in this budget to change that by some of the more progressive Democrats in the state?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MARCELA MITAYNES: Yes. So, I mentioned that there is a comprehensive approach that we were trying to push, and it’s six pieces of legislation that would begin to change the income inequality. And one of the things that I’m pushing, in particularly, is a change in the constitutional amendment that would allow us the ability to tax intangible wealth.

And so, what’s happening right now is that because the state is not able to collect all the — it doesn’t have sufficient revenue for its expenses, and it can only collect so much in tax, that it really leans on the city to be able to fill in that gap. And so, what we see and what I’m hearing, and I heard this over and over and over again through my campaign, was, you know, this issue about property taxes. And it’s just gotten so out of control that it’s become a huge problem.

And so, every time we talk about taxing the rich, we get these lies and these rhetorics and this pushback about the fact that the rich are going to leave. The rich left the city during the pandemic and went to their second home in the Hamptons. Let’s be clear about who’s leaving. The people that are leaving are working-class New Yorkers, middle-class New Yorkers, that can no longer afford their property tax, that are tired of sending their children to schools that are underfunded, that are tired of the expensive health costs, transportation costs, and the continued budget cuts, through this governor, of much-needed social services.

And so, what we should be focusing on, and what this legislation, along with the rest of the legislation, was really trying to tackle, is we were proposing six pieces of legislation that together would bring in $50 billion of revenue for the first year, and really setting down the foundation for ongoing revenue, so that we can finally fully fund all the services that we need and start reinvesting in our communities, because we all deserve to live in communities that are flourishing, not just folks that have money.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcela Mitaynes, I want to thank you so much for being with us, New York assemblymember on hunger strike along with other excluded workers. Before she won election last year, she spent a decade as a tenant organizer, immigrating from Peru with her family when she was a child.

Next up, we look at pandemic profiteers in the medical system, the nonprofit hospitals taking in billions in COVID relief and suing patients over unpaid $500 medical bills during the pandemic. Also, we’ll look at — while some charge up to $3,000 for a COVID test. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: A mariachi band singing “La Bamba” in solidarity with the excluded workers’ protest in New York.

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