Three weeks ago, Carla, 38, a member of our WhatsApp community, was finishing her shift as a house cleaner when she asked her employer for a letter of employment listing her salary, weekly hours, and the months she was unable to work during the pandemic.
“What do you need this for? You only work for me two days a week anyways, I don’t understand,” her employer of over four years said.
For Carla, a Mexican immigrant living in Staten Island and a mother of three, the letter was vital. She needed it to apply for the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF) — a state program that could award qualifying individuals who lost income due to the pandemic. She could have made up to $15,000 from the program.
The EWF requires applicants to submit documentation to prove they lost at least half of their income since the pandemic began. For Carla, this amounted to proving she lost half of $80.00 a day in cash, or $8.00 an hour, which is just over half of New York’s minimum $15.00 wage. One of the required documents is the “Proof of Employment History,” which can be satisfied by submitting W2s, records of paystubs, or electronic proof that they had filed taxes for years 2018, 2019, or 2020.
The program was designed to help undocumented immigrants and workers who were ineligible for federal relief money. However, for many individuals who are paid in cash and have not filed taxes, it has become nearly impossible to fulfill this category, making them ineligible for the fund.
“I don’t even have her phone number to call her to ask for it again. She calls me from a private line when she needs me,” Carla said via phone interview, also mentioning that her employer only uses a first name and offers very little information about herself.
Ever since she arrived in the United States in 1999 and settled in Manhattan with her ex-partner, Carla says she was always self-sufficient. “Even when I was pregnant, I had enough to cover my expenses.” As the pandemic hit, she was forced to stop working for five months. Her oldest daughter, who just turned eighteen, has chronic asthma. Carla could not risk bringing the coronavirus home and putting her daughter’s life in danger.
Around the same time, she was selling and catering food for her friends, but she had to stop that venture too. Because everything was in cash, she does not have any proof of how much she used to make.
“I really need the help because I have to pay for bills, and even with the help that my daughters get, it is not enough. School is starting and I really hope the lady can give me the letter so that I can apply,” Carla told Documented.
The problem with employers being unwilling to collaborate is nothing new. During a rally in July, Make The Road member Flaviana, 45, said that undocumented immigrants are at a disadvantage with the regulations because “employers do not want to get involved because they pay less than what it is legal.”
Individuals who cannot get a letter of employment will most likely be left out of the benefits, or have a difficult time in applying unless they can get an Individual Tax ID Number (ITIN).
Documented contacted the Department of Labor regarding the problems individuals who have worked with cash have faced when collecting the documentation. In an email response, Deputy Director of Communications, Deanna Cohen said that the DOL has partnered with the Department of Taxation and Finance (DTF) “to ensure any worker who seeks to pay their state income taxes for 2020, even those without an ITIN or SS#, can do so and receive a unique number that can be used to apply for Tier One benefits.”
The IRS has also designated 14 Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TAC) in the state, where individuals can schedule an appointment to visit the center and apply for an ITIN, and receive a stamped copy of their application which can be submitted for the Excluded Workers Fund. Applicants who have previously filed their ITIN application can also make an appointment and bring a copy of their application to get stamped.
In addition, Cohen wrote that the EWF application process continues to run smoothly, and that they “encourage eligible New Yorkers to apply.”
“Unseen and unheard and left out”
A month after the applications for the Excluded Workers Fund went live, Gov. Hochul in a press release mentioned that 90,000 applications have been submitted to the EWF and 50,000 have been approved by that date. It also noted that $250 million had already been released, with an estimated $600 million expected to be distributed by the end of the month to applicants identified as eligible.
While the news was well received by immigration advocates and New York’s immigrant communities, those who have been struggling to collect proof to submit their applications feel excluded once again.
William, 45, also from our WhatsApp community, who chose to go by an alias, was self-employed and worked for more than six years as a window washer in New York City. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1994.
Before the pandemic, he was making $600 a week — a salary which made it possible for him to cover rent, utilities, and also to send money to his sixteen-year-old daughter in Arizona. The coronavirus and New York’s lockdown changed his life completely. The stores he used to clean windows for closed down, and when they reopened they no longer could pay for his services.
“I’ve had to borrow money from here to pay, like my phone bills, my daughter’s phone bill. Help out with rent wherever I could, you know. So I borrow money from a friend, and then borrow from another friend to pay it back. It’s kind of this weird Ponzi scheme that I created, where I’m borrowing from here to pay this person back and I can’t catch a break at this point,” William told Documented in a phone interview.
Since the announcement of the EWF, William had been in high spirits, positive that much needed help would come to the community of undocumented New Yorkers who were affected by the pandemic like him. When the applications opened he immediately began collecting as much documentation as he could gather: a self employment letter, proof of identification and proof of address.
However, like other applicants who have had their documents returned by the application platform, he was asked for more proof that he did not have. William asked one of the clients he used to clean the windows to write a letter for him. He submitted it and was once again denied.
“I feel unseen and unheard and left out… feel invisible, to be honest, it seems like they should have named it differently. I don’t know how they expect undocumented people to have all of these things that they’re looking for,” William said.