Excluded workers put pressure on Bronx politicos to include them in state budget

Excluded workers march from the tip of Harlem to Assemblymember Latoya Joyner’s office in Grand Concourse.
Photo Adrian Childress

It’s been a busy week for New York’s excluded workers as they made stops at three Bronx lawmakers’ offices — as a part of a multi-week effort to march to Albany — calling on them to support workers through funding avenues before the April 1 state budget deadline.

On Tuesday, workers and their advocates put pressure on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Assemblymember and Labor Committee Chair Latoya Joyner, both Democrats, with marches to their Bronx offices in Gun Hill and Grand Concourse. On Wednesday morning, the group rallied in front of Assemblymember Michael Benedetto’s office building in Co-Op City, hoping to compel support.

The Bronx Times reached out to both Heastie and Joyner for comment on Wednesday, and are awaiting responses.

Immigrants that are not in the U.S. legally and cash-economy workers, known as excluded workers, have been calling out Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state leaders for failing to support legislation including a $3 billion push from lawmakers to revive the Excluded Workers Fund — a payment to low-income workers who lost wages due to COVID-19 and who are not eligible for Unemployment Insurance (UI) due to immigration status — as a permanent alternative to unemployment insurance.

Advocates say that 175,000 workers in the state are eligible for the Excluded Workers Fund.

In an interesting wrinkle to the dynamic, Benedetto’s primary opponent Jonathan Soto — a former organizer for U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — stood side-by-side with workers and condemned the Throggs Neck incumbent for not vocalizing his support for excluded workers.

“To say that people who are fighting, who have been left last but were the first ones to be excluded … to say that they should be excluded and not have access to the fruits of this society is something that is morally wrong,” said Soto, a progressive who also considered running against Benedetto in 2020 before dropping out. “I am running against Michael Benedetto … and we are going to say ‘bye bye Benedetto.'”

Tired of being excluded from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $216.3 million budget, excluded workers are planning a multi-week march, at lawmaker office, all the way to Albany. Photo Adrian Childress

Last year, laborers scored a major win when a landmark $2.1 billion was included in the state budget for New York’s Excluded Workers Fund, which happened to be a first-in-the-nation package to provide relief payments to workers who otherwise didn’t qualify for government-issued pandemic aid.

But following high-demand, cash tapped out quickly, and after two months, the state’s Department of Labor — the agency that administers the program — said they could not guarantee that the next batch of applicants would be approved for relief.

Benedetto told the Bronx Times that he advocated on the behalf of excluded workers last year, even in the face of opposition against the measure. The Democrat said that this year’s budget session — a record-high $216.3 executive budget for the 2023 fiscal year — might be a more complicated situation.

“I spoke up for justice for putting that money forward at that time because it was only just,” the longtime lawmaker said. “This year, we are not sure of what we’re doing, but I will always stand on the side of being fair to everyone.”

Benedetto has also faced recent scrutiny from activist groups.

According to a City & State article, a dozen people supporting Good Cause Eviction legislation — which largely prohibits the ability of landlords to evict tenants — appeared unannounced at Benedetto’s Albany office this week. The article stated that Benedetto agreed to meet with them in a conference room, and told members that he was still mulling over the bill.

The activists began shouting and chanting which led to Benedetto leaving the room.

On Tuesday night, Benedetto posted a Twitter video in which he claimed he was being bullied by the group and stated that he would not be intimidated by “those yelling the loudest or those with the biggest pockets.”

In response, Amit Hasan Nahid, a member of Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM) — one of the groups that appeared at Benedetto’s office — said that Benedetto is attempting to silence the concerns of his constituents.

“Michael Benedetto claims we’re bullying him. But all we have is our voices. All we have is our stories,” said Nahid, who is also an excluded worker. “Michael Benedetto calling us bullies says a lot more about him than it does about us. It tells me he is afraid of his own constituents. It tells me that he’d rather shut the door on us than face our pain.”
A Benedetto spokesperson clarified Benedetto’s statements in the Twitter video to the Times, stating that the assemblymember has been feeling pressure from both real estate brokers and grassroots housing reform groups to favor a side on those legislative efforts.
Last year, laborers scored a major win when a landmark $2.1 billion was included in the state budget for New York’s Excluded Workers Fund, which happened to be a first-in-the-nation package to provide relief payments to workers who otherwise didn’t qualify for government-issued pandemic aid. Photo Adrian Childress

Without the revival of the Excluded Workers Fund, laborers cannot get access to assistance if they lose work — a common occurrence that plagued many during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic — and advocates estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of New Yorkers have been left out to dry after being denied federal stimulus checks and unemployment support.

In an effort to secure a more permanent social safety net for these types of workers, including access to health care and unemployment coverage, laborers and advocates are calling on lawmakers to pass a state bill that would establish a permanent program to provide access to compensation on par with unemployment insurance in the event that they lose their job or suffer a loss in income.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.