Excluded workers and advocates on Long Island on Tuesday launched a push to provide workers with permanent access to financial assistance when they lose work. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Advocates for workers in the country illegally who lost their jobs during the pandemic gathered Tuesday in Patchogue to launch a campaign aimed at providing them access to unemployment benefits.

They want the state to create a permanent unemployment insurance program for that group and others, including freelancers and self-employed workers, who can’t access the traditional unemployment system.

The Unemployment Bridge Program would cost about $500 million a year, according to estimates by supporters, who said they intend to seek backing from Long Island's contingent in the state Legislature.

Essential services performed

“These are people who take care of our families” and perform other essential services, said Ani Halasz, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Jobs With Justice. “They are the foundation of our economy and it is absolutely inhumane” to exclude them from unemployment benefits.

Halasz and other advocates gathered on Tuesday at the nonprofit Sepa Mujer in Patchogue to launch the campaign for the proposed program.

A similar event took place in New York City last week, and more are planned in coming days in Albany and other locations. 

The state’s temporary Excluded Workers Fund in 2021 paid out $2.1 billion to day laborers, house cleaners, landscapers, child care workers and other people who were living in the country illegally but lost their jobs during the height of the pandemic, advocates said. But that fund was used up in about two months, they added, leaving many workers empty-handed, and showing how badly something similar is needed permanently. 

The fund provided a total of $224 million to nearly 15,500 excluded workers on Long Island as the region struggled to recover from the pandemic shutdown, advocates said.

Justin Henry, a spokesman for Gov. Kathy Hochul said in an email that she "remains committed to supporting unemployed New Yorkers in their time of need. The State has paid out more than $105 billion in unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic, and the Governor has announced several new programs and resources — including the expansion of New York’s virtual career center and a record $150 million investment in workforce development — to help New Yorkers looking for work."

About $1,200 a month

The proposed plan calls for paying the unemployed workers about $1,200 a month — similar to the traditional unemployment program.

Advocates said an estimated 750,000 workers across New York would be eligible, including 180,000 self-employed and freelance workers.

Besides domestic workers, day laborers and others, the proposed program would also benefit people who are reentering society after serving time in jail.

Sandra Sanchez, 54, originally from Mexico, said at the Patchogue event that she and her family are barely surviving because she can’t work due to medical problems.

Her husband is a day laborer, and picks up work sporadically. Even when Sanchez was working as a house cleaner, she earned about $350 a week, she said.

She has two children, ages 19 and 12.

“At Christmas they asked me for gifts and I didn’t have money to buy them” anything, she said in Spanish.

Julie Flores, 34, a freelance photographer from Great Neck, said she does not qualify for traditional unemployment even though she was born in the United States.

“I have met many freelancers who have struggled, and the worst part is that they are treated” poorly by the system, she said.

The Unemployment Bridge Program, she added, “would be fantastic.”

Nadia Marin-Molina, co-executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, said that many of the immigrant workers have tax identification numbers and are paying taxes into the system even though they are not in the country legally.

She estimated they pay $1 billion a year in New York State alone.

The current unemployment system dates to 1935 during the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Halasz said. He argued that it is time to update it, as some other states such as Colorado did last year.

“We are trying to correct almost 100 years of systemic exclusion of workers who have been the backbone of our economy,” he said.

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