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Essential Workers Hunger Strike for Unemployment Relief - Katie Anastas

KATE STOCKRAHM, HOST: Federal and state governments have tried to support unemployed Americans since the start of the pandemic. The CARES Act sent out stimulus checks, expanded unemployment eligibility, and gave workers extra money. But undocumented workers were not included.

Now in New York, as lawmakers finalize the state’s budget for the year, those workers are demanding relief. And they’re doing that through a hunger strike. Katie Anastas reports.

KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: Patricia Avedaño steps away from the crowd and leans on a fence outside the Church of the Ascension. She rubs her eyes and takes deep, slow breaths. She’s on the fourth day of a hunger strike. She and workers like her want additional state funding for undocumented workers who’ve had a particularly hard time during the pandemic.

PATRICIA AVEDAÑO: (translated) I feel bad. But I’m going to continue. While the politicians are sitting in their homes, there are many families, mothers, who can’t feed their children because they’ve lost their jobs and they don’t have unemployment benefits. Why? If I pay taxes, why don’t you and I have the same rights? Why? I don’t think it’s right.

ANASTAS: More than 85 workers are participating in the hunger strike, now in its second week. Eighteen lawmakers and political candidates have done 24-hour fasts in support.

Currently, the state Senate and Assembly budgets include $2.1 billion in funding for excluded workers. But the hunger strikers want more. They’re asking for $3.5 billion. Paid weekly, that would give them the same level of benefits as other unemployed workers.

The hunger strikers are part of a group called Make the Road New York. Angeles Solis is one of their organizers. She says these workers were among the first to lose their jobs in the pandemic. They include domestic workers, restaurant workers, construction workers, and street vendors.

ANGELES SOLIS: For many of our members, there are two pandemics. There is the pandemic for people who can work safely from home, over Zoom, and then there is a pandemic that essential and excluded workers have to put themselves at risk every day in order to ensure other people can work from Zoom.

ANASTAS: Make the Road New York says more than half of the essential workers in New York City are immigrants. In April 2020, just 5% of those workers received unemployment insurance.

Carmen de la Rosa is an assembly member who represents Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill. She says these workers remind her of her mother, a Dominican immigrant who made $10 an hour as a home health aid.

CARMEN DE LA ROSA: Our communities have always been historically left behind by government service and by investment. These are the men and women that have kept our city afloat.

ANASTAS: State lawmakers have one more week to approve this year’s budget. If they stick to the plan to provide undocumented workers with $2.1 billion in support, activists and workers say that will be a good start.

Avedaño says undocumented workers like her have put everything at risk during the pandemic to support New York. Now, she says, it’s time for New York to support them.

AVEDAÑO: (translated) The pandemic doesn’t distinguish between race, sex, economic situation. The pandemic affected everyone equally. But we’re undocumented. We’re the ones who do the most difficult jobs. We’re paying the price. Why, if we all have rights? So I’ll keep going. I’m here, and I’m going to continue.

ANASTAS: She says this strike isn’t just about money. It’s about equity. Katie Anastas, Columbia Radio News.

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