Op-Ed | The excluded workers fund is changing lives

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From the time I was little, I’ve always lived my life by a motto: life is like a bicycle. No matter how hard it gets, the most important thing is just to keep on cycling, or else you’ll fall down. 

I’ve faced a lot of challenges in my life, but the pandemic was the first time that I felt like I couldn’t keep on cycling. It was only thanks to the Excluded Workers Fund that I made it through. The fund, established earlier this year to help working families like mine who weren’t eligible for pandemic relief programs, has been life changing. Now, as state lawmakers head into a new budget season, it’s critical that they expand the fund further so that all people who are able to apply can get the funding they need.

My story resembles that of many other working people whose lives were turned upside down by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, my son, the main breadwinner in our family, was taken by ICE, leaving his wife and my two granddaughters. I was left supporting our family on my one source of income, folding clothes at a laundromat in my neighborhood. Then the pandemic began sweeping through our neighborhood and we all fell sick with COVID. I was laid off from my job. We lost our only hope at a steady source of income. 

While many people faced the same kind of losses, because we are undocumented, we didn’t have access to stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, or any of the other relief that the government provided during the pandemic. 

Instead, we had to rely on the charity of others to get through. A friend would bring us groceries so my granddaughters would have enough food to eat. When he couldn’t come by, I traveled for hours at a time to pick up donations at community centers and food banks. 

Hardest of all, we couldn’t afford our rent and had to move to a friend’s apartment in the Bronx. For a year, we shared a two-bedroom space between six adults and five children. With so many people in such a small space, getting any time to rest was virtually impossible. It was especially hard for my granddaughter, who suffers from asthma and found it hard to even breathe in the old and moldy apartment. 

In June of this year, we finally moved to our own place, a basement apartment in Fresh Meadows. Just when I thought our fortunes had shifted, Hurricane Ida hit. Overnight, we lost all of our possessions and our furniture was destroyed. We even had to take refuge in our car while the water receded. 

It felt like the last straw. For a year, we’d done everything we could to keep moving, and at every turn, we were pulled back down. It felt like our bicycle had finally fallen over. 

Then, this fall, I was watching TV late one night, and I saw an ad for something called the Excluded Workers Fund. It promised to provide financial support for those who weren’t eligible for pandemic aid. I’d heard about the fund but had no idea it could apply to me. 

Within days, with a friend’s help, I filled out an application. And in late October, I learned that I had been approved for the highest tier of funding – $15,600. It felt like nothing less than a blessing from heaven. Finally, after so many falls, we’d been given a sign telling us that our family could get back up – that we could start pedaling once again. 

The funding has transformed all of our lives. We’ve been able to finally get enough food to eat and make sure that my granddaughters don’t wake up hungry. We can get new furniture again after most of it grew moldy during the floods. My family’s especially excited for a new dining room table so that we can all eat together again. We can replace the cleaning and painting tools that my son needs to work and that the floods took away. 

Most importantly, we can get back our peace of mind and the security to care for our family. 

There are hundreds of thousands of people across Queens and New York who have stories like mine. Hundreds of thousands of people in our state were excluded from any support during the pandemic and have been excluded from our country’s safety net for decades. 

The fund has been so popular that just nine weeks after it opened in August, the full $2.1 billion that the state passed has already run out. But there are still many more people around our state who could be eligible for the funding and who didn’t yet have a chance to apply. 

That’s why it’s so essential that Governor Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers pass additional funding for the Excluded Workers Fund in the next budget session and make it possible for all working people in this state to have access to the relief that they desperately need. 

The excluded workers fund gave us back our hope for a better future. We should make sure everybody in New York who’s eligible has the chance to do the same. 

Jessica Jimenez is a resident of Corona, Queens, and a member of Make the Road New York