Coronavirus cases continue to climb across the Southern and Western United States. In New York, previously the nation’s epicenter, many of the residents reeling from the economic consequences are excluded from any government assistance.
Clara Cortes lives in Long Island with her family. Both she and her husband tested positive for the virus, and while Clara has since recovered, her husband spent 54 days in the hospital. Now he is in a rehabilitation center dependent on a ventilator to breathe. “My husband is fighting for his recovery right now and it’s all because of the simple fact that he went to work to support his family,” Cortes said in a virtual press conference. Cortes is out of work, and without steady access to income, it is difficult to pay her mortgage, her husband’s medical bills and support her family. Her husband used to work in a supermarket. “It was there that he got sick because he was not allowed to use a mask,” she said. “When he had it on, the owner told him to take it off because he would scare the customers. He complied and, unfortunately, has suffered a lot.”
Families across New York state are facing food insecurity. As an undocumented immigrant, however, Cortes does not qualify for state or federal financial assistance excluding her from unemployment, food stamps or the coronavirus relief bill. Cortes’ daughter and husband are both U.S. citizens, but mixed status households were excluded from the meager assistance the bill provided.
State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Carmen de la Rosa have proposed legislation to create an excluded workers fund. The bill would enable workers who do not qualify for unemployment insurance—such as undocumented workers like Cortes—to receive $3,300 in monthly financial assistance. As New York faces a budget crisis, the bill would produce revenue by taxing the capital gains of billionaires’ assets.
Cortes is a member of Make the Road, an immigrant rights organization advocating for the bill. For Angeles Solis, organizer at Make the Road, a major obstacle for the bill is the lack of any indication of when the legislature will reconvene “to pass lifesaving legislation for our communities.”
The bill would also benefit informal workers such as day laborers, street vendors and sex workers. For many transgender individuals facing widespread discrimination, sex work is one of the few available work options that has been heavily impacted by the pandemic.
Alisha King is an advocate with the Bronx Sex Worker Outreach Project and a trans woman and former sex worker. King noted the funds would “help [trans sex workers] survive because they won’t be out there in the streets or online trying to find some way to make money dealing with this john and that john. It would keep them housed and keep them fed.”
Advocates anticipate Governor Cuomo’s opposition to the worker’s fund. While the governor’s office did not response to requests for comment, Cuomo has consistentlyopposed increasing taxes on the wealthy despite support from both the public and legislators. He has said providing financial support to undocumented immigrants would be fiscally “irresponsible.”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) expressed her support for the fund in a statement to In These Times noting that undocumented immigrants “pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than many big corporations and billionaires. Yet, during this pandemic they have been left alone to struggle to get food and financial aid, and to make matters worse, we are on the cusp of an eviction crisis.”
Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) is a community organization building the power of working-class South Asians and Indo-Caribbean members. During the pandemic, their members (who are mostly undocumented) were forced to choose between risking exposure to Covid-19 in order to work low-wage jobs or deal with the financial implications of unemployment. Two members, Rajkumar Thapa and Rashida Ahmed, chose the former and died from the coronavirus. As proponents of the bill, it is clear to DRUM that the current crises members are facing are a result of neoliberal capitalism. They describe capitalism as “governments and systems that serve the rich, and punish the poor.” Fahd Ahmed, the executive director of DRUM, explained that neoliberalism builds on capitalism to cut spending on social needs and systems such as safety net programs.
“For a state like New York which claims to be progressive, has a large immigrant and undocumented population, why in the past did we never think of setting up economic support systems for undocumented immigrants?” said Ahmed, “The only answer is that, under the neoliberal logic, that wouldn’t make sense. Why invest in people?”
Lexii Foxx is a 29-year-old Black transgender woman and sex worker. Foxx said she receives $162 in government assistance every month via food stamps, but living in Brooklyn, it’s not enough to survive. “I have a lot of regulars that have actually stopped coming,” Foxx said referring to clients. “As far as the roads, it’s not as many cars that’ll be out. I’m even working corners. Just a little bit helps. I don’t need much. I just need to stay afloat.”
When Foxx’s cousin recently passed away she prepared to return home to North Carolina. With no savings, she needed to work to pay for her trip despite the risks. Tahtianna Fermin, co-founder of Black Trans News, which supports and uplifts Black trans sex workers, was able to intervene when she learned of Foxx’s plans.
“Thank god, with the organization, people have been donating. We were able to give her $200 so she wouldn’t have to go out and sell her body for the night,” Fermin said. “She was so thankful she started tearing up and that touched my heart. That right there shows me that these girls need this money. These girls need this help.”
Black trans sex workers, many of whom are homeless, were also in a precarious economic situation before the pandemic. New York has the highest ranking of per capita homelessness in the country. The bill itself captures how massive wealth inequality has become the new normal: Taxing the investments of the 112 billionaires residing in New York state would produce $5.5 billion in revenue, which is more than the $3.5 billion cost of the entire worker bailout fund. While $200 from a Black trans led organization (currently soliciting donations) made Foxx emotional, billionaires across the country have increased their wealth by $584 billion.
Ahmed described Cuomo as the “quintessential representative” of “the neoliberal logic,” citing his persistent austerity measures such as cutting Medicaid or education funding. Absent federal aid, Cuomo has warned of 20% cuts to public schools, healthcare and local governments.
“Investing in people is not going to maximize profits for the corporations and for the elites,” Ahmed said. “The more precarious we leave people, the further we’re able to keep wages lower, have easily controllable labor populations and maximize the profits that can be made from exploiting their labor.”
Many of these workers are now unemployed. In New York City, Solis speaks to people on winding pantry lines, urging them to join the campaign and call their representatives. Fermin is expanding Black Trans News to support more Black trans sex workers like Foxx and step in where the government—and the current economic system—has failed.
About the Author: Rebecca Chowdhury is a freelance investigative journalist based in New York City. A native New Yorker, her work focusing on underreported communities has appeared in The Appeal, The Indypendent and Human Rights Watch.