“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements

State lawmakers and workers’ rights advocates warned that burdensome proof-of-employment requirements may mean the funds go unspent.

Lee Harris   ·   April 2, 2021
Maria Isabel Sierra, 54, has been striking for 11 days to push for the state legislature to pass legislation that would create a fund for excluded workers during the pandemic. Sierra, a street vendor, lost a significant amount of her income due to the pandemic. | Paul Frangipane/Documented NY

This article was published in partnership with Documented.

A measure currently planned for New York’s next budget would provide more than $2 billion in cash assistance for New Yorkers who have been ineligible for federal relief payments during the pandemic, including many farmworkers, service employees, street vendors, and undocumented laborers who often earn cash wages in the informal economy.

But state lawmakers and workers rights advocates say Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for a two-tiered system of access to the Excluded Worker Fund that would distribute benefits based on burdensome proof-of-employment requirements. 

Several warned that the restrictive conditions may mean the funds go unspent.

Senate labor committee chair Jessica Ramos and others with knowledge of budget negotiations told New York Focus that the governor is pushing for prohibitive eligibility standards that would require workers to produce formal documents such as tax processing numbers, bank statements, wage notices, or paystubs.

“The governor seems to be trying virtually everything to gut the program, so that it will not reach the folks that it’s intended to reach,” said Deborah Axt, the former Co-Executive Director of immigrant rights group Make the Road New York. “Under the guise of preventing fraud, they’re putting in rigid poison pill requirements for people to prove their eligibility for the fund by presenting things like payroll records, bank statements—the kinds of very official records that are not available to most excluded workers.”

“The whole point of the fund is that if they had this documentation that they’re asking for, they would have been able to tap into some other type of assistance. It makes no sense,” one legislator with knowledge of negotiations said. “This is the way the governor takes credit for being a progressive. For providing for the people. And then, we believe, when all the money is not used up—because that’s what’s going to happen—he can then take that, and allocate it towards something else.”

A Two-Tiered System

Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes has joined excluded workers in a weekslong hunger strike to demand that the state budget include $3.5 in relief funds for excluded workers. Mitaynes said that barriers to eligibility would defeat the purpose of the relief funds.

“We really want folks to be able to apply, and to qualify, because if not, then what’s the point?” she told New York Focus.

But during budget negotiations, the governor has pushed for stringent eligibility requirements, including proof of employment and Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITINs), tax processing numbers assigned by the IRS to individuals without social security numbers. The application process to receive an ITIN is heavily backlogged, and can take months.

In an apparent compromise communicated to some members this week, according to multiple sources within the legislature, the program would be split into two levels.

Workers with the ability to provide ITIN numbers or formal attestation of employment, such as employer wage notices, paystubs, W2 or 1099 forms, would be permitted to access a “Tier 1” of funding that would provide recipients as much as $15,600 in relief funds. 100,000 people are expected to qualify for this Tier, a presentation at an Assembly briefing said.

A second tier would serve as a catchall for workers who could not provide adequate proof of employment to qualify for Tier 1 support. Workers in this Tier 2 would receive $3,200—less than a quarter of the assistance available to Tier 1.

Tenant advocates are worried stringent requirements for aid will shunt many people into Tier 2.

“The population of workers in this coalition — day laborers, domestic workers, nannies, home health aides, delivery workers — they don’t have a traditional employer,” said Bianca Guerrero, coordinator of the Fund Excluded Workers coalition. Often, she said, “they have either precarious or not very firm relationships with their employers.”

Undocumented workers are often paid in cash by multiple different employers, Guerrero added, and many are unbanked.

Progressive lawmakers are pressing to allow workers to qualify for the first tier through alternative forms of proof, such as texts with employers.

“We have heard a lot of pushback on very common-sense ideas, like requiring self-attestation — that people attest, under penalty of perjury, to the facts of their job, and then support that self-attestation through photos of them at their job site, communication with their employer, that kind of thing. So, we’re just asking that the fund allow the kinds of evidence that are allowed in court cases involving this population,” Axt said.

Spokespeople for the Senate and Assembly did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Will $2.1 Billion Get Out The Door To Workers?

Several sources told New York Focus that the executive has not pushed to decrease the size of the fund from the $2.1 billion proposed in the Senate’s one-house budget.

“Nobody’s trying to bring the number down,” Ramos said. “I don’t know if it will be higher. It might stay at 2.1. We’re trying to bring it up.”

But the nominal size of the fund could be a mirage, if the eligibility requirements keep it from being disbursed.

“The fear, obviously, is it’s going to play out like the rental relief program, where leadership creates such a byzantine and high-bar system that they’re not actually going to distribute a significant amount of the money,” a legislative staffer said, referring to a rent relief program that rejected the vast majority of applicants and reportedly only gave out less than half of its $100 million budget.

“That’s how the governor’s budget office operates,” the staffer added. “If they can’t outright win their preferred spending priorities, or lack thereof, they want to make sure they have maximal control over the money. They’re always putting pots of money to things that they don’t intend to spend.”

Asked to comment on arguments about the governor’s proposed eligibility requirements, Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo, said in an email, “We negotiate the budget with the legislature not through the press.”

Lee Harris co-founded New York Focus and currently works part-time on strategy and development as contributing editor. She is also a staff reporter at The American Prospect, where her reporting focuses on climate, finance, and labor, and her work has appeared in outlets… more
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