These Workers Don’t Get Aid and Are Going Hungry. A Tax on New York Billionaires Could Help Them.

Rebecca ChowdhuryJune 30, 2020

People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 $584bil­lion.

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.

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.
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