Undocumented Workers, Others Get $2.1B Relief In NY Budget

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (April 7, 2021, 7:41 PM EDT) -- New York lawmakers have agreed to a $2.1 billion fund allowing up to $15,600 cash payments to undocumented workers and others who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but are ineligible for emergency federal relief.

The Excluded Workers Fund will be the first state-run, state-funded program in the country to provide relief to individuals who didn't qualify for federal assistance. The historic relief is part of the $212 billion budget that New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate and Assembly Democratic leaders agreed to on Tuesday.

A coalition of over 200 organizations had campaigned for the emergency assistance throughout the year, culminating in a 23-day hunger strike that broke right after the budget agreement was reached.

Jackie Agudelo, the director of coalition member the United Community Center of Westchester, applauded the agreement, calling it "the first time that the voices of essential and excluded workers were heard and taken into account for economic relief."

"There had to be a global pandemic and hunger strike for them to be taken into account during this immense crisis. Now we hope that the funds will be distributed as quickly as possible," Agudelo said in a statement.

The state fund will be available to current New Yorkers who lived in the state before March 27, 2020, lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and were ineligible for federal relief, according to the bill's text.

Jobless workers may qualify for the full $15,600 payment if they show that they have filed a tax return within the past 3 years with a valid taxpayer identification number. The "Tier 1" relief amounts to a year's worth of $300 weekly unemployment benefits, one-third less than New York's current unemployment benefits, according to State Senator Jessica Ramos, D-Queens.

Workers may also provide letters from their employer, paystubs and wage statements to try and access the Tier 1 payment. At a later point, the Commissioner of Labor will identify other forms of proof that workers may show to receive the full relief, according to the text of the bill.

The fund will also free up a $3,200 payment — an amount equaling the combined three federal stimulus payments — to jobless workers who can't provide the documentation for the higher payment, but who can prove their identity and state residency.

"Applicants shall not be required to prove that they are lawfully present in the United States," the bill said.

Individuals rejected for the relief may request a review. However, the text of the bill didn't lay out how the review process would work and only specified that the New York Commissioner of Labor will decide that process.

Bianca Guerrero, a coordinator for the coalition that advocated for the fund, called its establishment "probably one of the best things in my life" during a Wednesday call with Law360.

In addition to the pieces that the New York government still has to flesh out, the new $2.1 billion fund, though "definitely a really good start," is still lower than the $3.5 billion that advocates said was necessary to cover all excluded workers, Guerrero said. The two payment tiers were also a compromise, with Guerrero saying the coalition intended for "all of the workers to be treated the same."

However, she said the coalition will closely watch how the fund is implemented and how long it will take to release the payments. "Our folks are not on a hunger strike anymore, but that doesn't take the urgency away of actually getting the money into their pockets," she said.

The budget bill creating the Excluded Workers Fund also set aside $2.4 billion in rent and homeowner relief for individuals affected by the pandemic, funding that will also be available to undocumented immigrants.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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