“Finally, We’re Being Recognized”: An Up-Close and Personal View of the Excluded Workers Fund

Stories and Perspectives from Applicants to the Excluded Workers Fund 

The COVID-19 recession brought an extraordinary spike in unemployment: the national rate reached a high of 14.8 percent in April 2020 (Falk et al. 2021). With millions facing unprecedented income volatility, the federal government enacted major income relief programs, which included expanding coverage and payments through the unemployment insurance system and plugging holes in existing coverage for self-employed and independent contractors through the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Expanded unemployment insurance decreased the number of people living in poverty by millions (Wheaton, Giannarelli, and Dehry 2021). However, millions of people—most notably undocumented workers—were excluded from the expanded unemployment compensation system. 

Several states and localities, as well as some private foundations, developed programs to address this gap. The most extensive by a wide margin is the New York State Excluded Workers Fund (EWF), passed as part of the state budget in April 2021. New York was the only state in the country in which undocumented and other excluded workers received unemployment compensation that roughly equaled the amount the standard unemployed labor force received. Between August and October 2021, 130,000 New York workers qualified for one-time payments of $15,600. The funds exhausted faster than anticipated, showing the extent of the need, and an ongoing campaign is urging the state to replenish the fund with an additional $3 billion (NYS DOL 2021). 

In a departure from past recessions, immigrants faced disproportionately higher jobless rates throughout the pandemic (Kallick 2022). The economic fallout has been particularly intense for immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, because they were concentrated in jobs most affected by the pandemic. Immigrants were disproportionately more likely to have in-person jobs with the highest levels of layoffs in the recession, such as hotel and restaurant workers, retail sales and support (Gould and Kassa 2021), and personal care services such as nail salons. These jobs also typically had low wages and few or no benefits. Undocumented workers are also disproportionately more likely to be in jobs newly recognized as “essential” work (Kerwin and Warren 2020), such as grocery clerks, home health aides, and delivery service workers, which carried a high risk of COVID-19 exposure. 

To learn more about the impacts of the fund on families and communities, we conducted nine interviews with community-based organizations that supported the application process and 15 interviews with fund applicants. We explored themes related to how people used the fund, the fund’s implications for well-being, and who the fund missed. 

The experiences reported here take on heightened importance as New York State considers replenishing this fund and as other states and localities consider implementation of similar programs. Our interviews show that workers who qualified but did not receive the payments continue to struggle with basic needs, such as housing and food for their families. For those who received the benefit, however, the fund provided a critical bridge over the worst of the pandemic recession and encouraged steps toward greater social inclusion and civic engagement for workers and their families. 


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This is a joint publication of Immigration Research Institute and the Urban Institute.






Co-authors are:


  • David Dyssegaard Kallick

    Kallick is director of Immigration Research Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that looks at immigration issues.

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  • Elaine Waxman

    Elaine Waxman is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Her expertise includes food insecurity, nutrition, and the US safety net, as well as broader issues affecting families and communities with low incomes. She received her MPP and PhD from the University of Chicago, where she is currently a lecturer at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

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  • Poonam Gupta

    Poonam Gupta is a research analyst in the Income and Benefits Policy Center, where she focuses on social safety net policy. She works on several projects related to federal nutrition programs and food insecurity. Gupta holds BAs in public health and Spanish from the Johns Hopkins University and an MSPH in international health from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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  • Paola Echave

    Paola Echave is a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center. Her areas of expertise include immigration and health. Her research focuses on the role of immigration enforcement on the health, economic, and social well-being of Latinx and immigrant communities. She has extensive training in quantitative and qualitative methods and experience with large-scale social science and demographic surveys. She is currently the project manager of the Annual Survey of Refugees for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Before joining Urban, Echave worked as a research assistant at the Ohio State University, where she conducted research and published work on the role of obesity on the risk of mortality and trends in specific health outcomes in the US. Echave holds a BA in criminology from the University of New Mexico and master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the Ohio State University.

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  • Luis Gallardo

    Luis Hassan Gallardo is a research assistant in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. His past research focused on United States immigration policy and the barriers vulnerable populations face in accessing health and welfare services. Gallardo graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with degrees in political science and ethnic studies.

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  • Julio Salas

    Julio Salas is a research intern in the Income and Benefits Policy Center. Julio is also a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy fellow and was a recent legislative health fellow at the US House of Representatives, where he led a health portfolio. Julio graduated from Cornell University and Queensborough Community College with degrees in human development and health sciences.

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  • Hamutal Bernstein

    Hamutal Bernstein is a principal research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center, where she leads Urban’s program on immigrants and immigration. Her research focuses on the well-being and integration of immigrant and refugee families and workers. Her areas of expertise include immigration and integration, workforce development and training, and human services. Before joining Urban, Bernstein was a program officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and research associate at the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration. Bernstein received her BA in international relations from Brown University and her PhD in government from Georgetown University.

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