SYRACUSE, NY (WRVO) – Before the pandemic, Jacqueline Gissella Conteras Banchon cleaned houses and washed dishes in Hudson, N.Y. But when the pandemic hit, she lost her job at the restaurant and said she was rarely asked to clean her five houses.
“Three of the houses did not want her to work anymore and the other two occasionally had [me] come in, but very rarely because they had children,” she said through a translator.
She lost 70% of her income and she didn’t qualify for standard unemployment benefits. While she did get some of her work back in June of this year, she suffered some broken ribs from a car accident in August and is struggling to continue work.
Jessica Maxwell is the executive director of the Workers Center of Central New York. She works with many immigrant workers who all say the past year and a half has been an unprecedented struggle.
“It was just such a stressful day-to-day struggle to figure out how how to make it through the week and how to put food on the table,” she said.
Her organization is one of several that lobbied for the excluded workers fund–a $2.1 billion alternative to unemployment benefits for excluded workers like Banchon.
However, many didn’t know about it either because they didn’t have the technology to access it or they didn’t have organizations to help. Bianca Guerrero of Make the Road NY said because of these barriers many–especially in upstate New York–missed out on the critical funds.
“By the time the 24th had rolled around, and definitely by the time the applications closed, there were a lot of people who were just finding out about the fund who didn’t know the program existed or only thought it was for New York City,” said Guerrero.
Not to mention there was a rigorous eligibility process which included providing proof of identity and residence. Maxwell said this deterred several immigrant workers from applying.
“You’re sending all of your identity documents to qualify for this fun to a government agency–to the Department of Labor–and maybe you’re working without a work permit,” said Maxwell. “That’s a really scary thing for people to do.”
Banchon found out about the fund through Columbia County Sanctuary Movement and began her application as soon as she could.
But it wasn’t easy.
She needed proof of employment and since she didn’t have a W-2 she had to get a letter from her employer. But the restaurant where she washed dishes refused.
“The lawyers did not want the owner of the restaurant to get into any legal troubles with the Department of Labor,” she said through a translator.
She ended up providing her own letter since she was technically self-employed from cleaning houses and she got approved in October.
“This is a great help thanks to God and this would help us buy clothes to get ready for the winter,” said Banchon.
Banchon was one of just over 130,000 excluded workers to receive funding–less than half of those who applied during the eight weeks the fund was actually open.
“The people who are left out of this are no better off than they were a year and a half ago,” said Emma Kreyche of the Workers Justice Center of New York. She said that while the fund was great, it wasn’t nearly enough. “The $2.1 billion that was allocated to the fund in 2021 was totally insufficient to meet the need for COVID-related relief within this community.”
But she says she’s still grateful the Excluded Workers Fund was even created in the first place.
“I do want to applaud the Department of Labor for the work they’ve done to expedite the distribution of funds to so many people in need,” said Kreyche.
Those who were approved are using the funds to pay off debts, buy reliable transportation, and even buy houses according to Diana Cruz of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement.
“Some of them are always just getting by,” said Cruz. “And now they finally have some means to think about homeownership.”
There aren’t too many other resources for excluded, particularly undocumented, workers now that the fund is gone. This is why all of these advocacy groups are banding together to get the fund extended.
Maxwell said she’s optimistic that they’ll have the support they need to achieve their goal.
“So I think we can expect a lot of support and participation from people in a second campaign in order to extend those benefits,” she said.