Earlier this year, state lawmakers set up a fund that has been transformational for New Yorkers: the Excluded Workers Fund, a program that provides direct financial support for working people who were left out of pandemic relief programs like unemployment insurance. The program has been so popular that, just nine weeks after it began accepting applications in early August, the state is no longer accepting applications.
While it’s tempting to sit on our laurels, the truth is that there are still thousands more people that could benefit from this funding, and it’s critical that Gov. Kathy Hochul and state legislators expand the fund even further in the coming budget season.
This funding has been a lifeline for New Yorkers from all walks of life and the recipients have reflected New York’s vast diversity, including immigrants from every corner of the world. For the many Black New Yorkers like me, the funding has been nothing short of life-changing.
In the spring of 2019, I packed up my bags and moved from my native Jamaica to New York City. It was a move I’d been planning for years, and I came to the city with big dreams for myself and my two sons. I’d finally be able to make a good salary and have a job I could rely on. My oldest, 17 years old, could finally pursue the graphic design career he’d been imagining for himself. My 8-year-old wouldn’t have to wait for long for new clothes every time he had a growth spurt.
For a while, all the pieces seemed to fall in place exactly like we’d hoped. I found work caring for the children of two families and an older adult. The work was steady and I loved my clients. My eldest began looking into design and engineering degrees. We had a small but comfortable apartment in Queens. It seemed like the future could only get brighter.
Less than a year later, all our dreams came crashing down as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on New York and the rest of the country. Within weeks, I’d lost all of my clients, with seemingly no hope of finding new work in the near future. Parents who were stuck at home no longer needed childcare, and providing care to a senior citizen during a pandemic was an impossibility.
I have spent my life planning. I pride myself on being able to plan what I want my future to be and the steps needed to achieve it. But COVID-19 tested me like nothing had before. Suddenly, my family and I found ourselves out of options, with every door of opportunity closed.
Where before we had a steady paycheck, now we had to get by on food donations from our church. Our rent bills piled up for months, and we were spared eviction only by the lenience of our landlord. Most heartbreakingly, I had to start saying no to my children when they asked if they could go out to the mall or get new clothes. I’d spent a year working hard to make sure my kids could have the same freedom to treat themselves as their friends. Now it was unclear when they’d ever get that freedom back.
While many people in New York faced the same hardships, ours was particularly acute because, owing to our immigration status, we didn’t have access to unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, or other pandemic relief programs. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are undocumented are in the same boat.
Then this spring, I heard about a potential source of hope: a fund that would benefit people like me who couldn’t get access to other sources of economic support. Workers around the state were fighting for this funding, dozens even going on hunger strike for weeks.
When applications for the Excluded Workers Fund opened up in August, I applied within days. In October, I was approved for the top tier of funding: $15,600. When I heard the news, my heart filled with joy. Finally, we could pay back our rent, get the laptop my son needed to succeed in school, buy new clothes for my son, and even put some money in our depleted savings account. Most importantly, we could return some stability to our lives and have the freedom to start building a future again.
While the fund helped my family, there are still many others who could be eligible. Even after the DOL stopped guaranteeing funds for eligible workers, thousands of applications poured in. This is why Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature need to expand the fund next year and make sure that anybody who could be eligible for the Excluded Workers Fund has access.
COVID-19 affected all New Yorkers. It didn’t distinguish by who you were, where you worked, or where you came from. As we start to recover, it’s important that our state lawmakers make sure that everyone has the support they need to get back on their feet again.
Kerry Ann Francis is a Queens resident.