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.