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How New York City Must Support Low-Wage Essential Workers as They Support Everyone Else

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Thomas Power, senior staff attorney with the Workers Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services recently authored an op-ed with colleagues Sarah Leberstein from Make the Road New York and Katisha Andrew from TakeRoot Justice, on the need for more funding for employment legal services.

“For low-wage essential workers, obtaining private counsel is prohibitively expensive. Often, the worker’s damages from a case are less than the actual cost for a private attorney to bring the case forward.” Created in 2019, New York City’s Low-Wage Worker Initiative (LWWI) is the only dedicated city-funded program that provides free, individually-tailored, employment civil legal services and case management support to workers in New York City’s low-wage industries.

Update on the New York State Excluded Workers Fund

Presione aquí para la versión en Español.

On April 19, 2021, New York State passed the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF), which will provide financial relief to undocumented individuals who suffered income loss during the pandemic and were unable to get unemployment insurance benefits or other federal pandemic relief benefits. Under the EWF, eligible New Yorkers can receive a one-time cash payment in the amounts of either $15,600 or $3,200 depending on the type of work documentation and earning applicants can provide. Applications will be available in August 2021.

How do I prove my identity?
All eligible applicants must show proof of identity and proof of New York State residency. The following non-expired items can be used for both:

  • New York State driver license or New York State ID
  • IDNYC

If applicants do not have these items, they can show proof of identity by providing the following documents:

Proof of Identity (total of 4 points needed):

  • Non-U.S. passport (3 points)
  • New York State inpatient ID issued by State Office of Mental Health (2 points)
  • Marriage certificate (1 point)
  • Divorce decree (1 point)
  • New York State inpatient photo identification card (2 points)
  • NYC Department of Parks and Recreation card (1 point)
  • Non-U.S. birth certificate (1 point)
  • Non-U.S. photo ID card (1 point)
  • Diploma or transcript from a high school, college or university in the U.S (1 point)
  • Any other document the Department of Labor announces it will accept (3 or fewer points only)

How do I prove my residency in New York State before March 27, 2020 and currently?

  • Copy of a utility bill
  • Bank or credit card statement
  • A current lease, mortgage payment, or property tax statement
  • Letter addressed to you from the New York City Housing Authority
  • Letter addressed to you from a homeless shelter that states you are living at the shelter now
  • Letter to you from a non-profit that provides services to the homeless
  • Any other document the Department of Labor announces it will accept

You do not need all of the documents listed above, but it may be best in preparation for the application process to gather as many as possible.

How do I prove my work history?
There are two tiers of benefits. The amount of benefits you receive depends on which documents related to employment and earnings you may have.

Tier 1 – $15,600 total benefit 

  • Tax return for 2018, 2019 or 2020 using a valid Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN); OR
  • Six weeks of pay stubs or wage statements from the last 6-month period before the date you lost income due to the
    COVID-19 pandemic; OR
  • Letter from an employer showing dates of employment and why you are no longer working; OR
  • W-2 or 1099 form from 2019 or 2020; OR
  • Wage notice that shows employment from some time before the date you lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.; OR
  • Any other documents the Department of labor announces it will accept.

Tier 2 – $3,200 total benefit

  • For applicants who cannot provide the documents required for tier 1, but who are otherwise eligible for the Excluded Workers’ Fund, you can receive a smaller sum of benefits if you can show alternative proof of work-related eligibility, as determined by the Department of Labor.

How do I protect myself from fraud?
You cannot currently apply for the EWF. The process will be administered by the New York State Department of Labor and applications are scheduled to be available in August. You should not have to pay a lawyer or anyone else for assistance in completing this application. Be careful to not hand over your personal information to notarios.

Do you have additional questions?
If you have questions, call the Catholic Migration Services Workers’ Rights Hotline at (877) 525-2267.

Download the Update on the New York State Excluded Workers Fund as a PDF.

Paid Sick Leave Enhanced for New York State 

Claudia (right), was assisted by the Workers’ Rights Program during the pandemic.

Beginning on January 1, 2021, workers across New York State could begin accruing leave to take paid time off to care for themselves or a family member with illness, attend a doctor’s appointment, or seek services related to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or human trafficking. While New York State responded swiftly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide paid sick time to those who were impacted by a mandatory quarantine or isolation order, this is the first time New York State has ever required employers to provide general paid sick leave. Now New York State has caught up with New York City, which has provided general paid sick leave for seven years, and workers across New York State can request paid time off to care for themselves and their family members. Claudia, a recent client of Catholic Migration Services speaks to the importance of the new law: “It’s not our fault when we get sick, so now we can work knowing that this law protects us.”

Claudia fell ill herself and was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19. She contacted Catholic Migration Services’ labor hotline when her employer refused to pay her for her time away from work. As an essential worker, Claudia worked in a laundromat that supplied laundry services to healthcare facilities during the pandemic. Catholic Migration Services contacted Claudia’s employer and helped her secure two weeks of wages. Prior to the pandemic, Claudia had never taken a sick day the 4 years she worked there. “It was a huge relief – that pay helped me with my rent. And they don’t give it to you if you don’t ask.”

Since March of last year, the Workers’ Rights team at Catholic Migration Services has provided assistance to hundreds of low income and immigrant workers regarding workplace violations related to COVID-19. In collaboration with workers’ centers and community-based organizations citywide, the Workers’ Rights Program works towards strengthening the enforcement of workers’ rights through affirmative litigation, policy reform, individual representation, and community education.

Catholic Migration Services represents low-wage workers in all five boroughs free of charge. The Workers’ Rights Hotline, our hotline providing workers’ rights information and assistance is open to all residents of New York. To speak with a member of the Workers’ Rights Program, please call (877) 52-LABOR (52267) Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ¡Hablamos Español!

Catholic Migration Services Files An Unfair Labor Practice Charge With the National Labor Relations Board Against Brooklyn-Based Company, Art to Frames

Catholic Migration Services Files An Unfair Labor Practice Charge With the National Labor Relations Board Against Brooklyn-Based Company, Art to Frames

Whistle Blower Employees Fired in Retaliation for Requesting Masks

Brooklyn, NY (September 21, 2020) – Catholic Migration Services filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (Region 29) against the Brooklyn-based employer, Art to Frames on Thursday, September 17th. The charge alleges that Art to Frames fired an estimated thirty-five workers after they collectively requested that their Employer provide masks to employees for protection from COVID-19.

“These workers only earned minimum wage at Art to Frames and after their termination, they have struggled to make ends meet and find other employment,” said Magdalena Barbosa, Managing Attorney – Workers’ Rights Program, Catholic Migration Services. “Many of these workers also contracted COVID-19 and suspect that they were exposed to the virus at work.”

The COVID-19 public health crisis is creating many challenges for immigrant workers and their families. An estimated six million immigrants are in essential jobs at the front lines of the response to this pandemic. Immigrants, women, and people of color disproportionately fill many of these low-wage jobs and find themselves at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 while at work.

Although New York has some of the strongest laws on the books to protect workers, these workers are NOT protected by New York’s current whistleblower statute, New York Labor Law Section 740,” said Miriam Clark, former president of the National Employment Lawyers Association/New York. “The current law fails to protect employees who blow the whistle on anything that is not both an actual violation of a law, rule or regulation and also creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety. These cramped provisions make New York an outlier among the states: employers can even fire whistleblowers who complain about coronavirus-related violations, unless the employee can prove that there is an actual violation of law, rule or regulation, which is rare.” Catholic Migration Services and the National Employment Lawyers Association/New York call on state lawmakers to amend New York Labor Law Section 740 to ensure that whistleblowers are protected

“I worked at Art to Frames for about two years,” said Luis Jacome, Former Employee, Art to Frames who was fired after joining his colleagues in requesting protective personal equipment while on the job. “When we began learning about COVID in early March, my co-workers and I became scared. People were coughing at work and we were afraid of getting sick. All we wanted was for our employer to protect us, but they took zero precautions. No masks, no safe distances – there wasn’t even soap in the bathroom. Instead, we were fired. A few days after my termination, I went to the hospital because I was very sick with COVID symptoms.”

“I’m a single mom and while I was devoted to my job, my kids have always been my number one priority,” recalled Digna Rivera, Fired Employee, Art to Frames. “I reported to work at Art to Frames every day for five years to provide for my family, not to bring home dangerous germs. All we asked for was for our employer to provide a safe environment to work, and simply for that we were fired! We seek justice and to send a message to Art to Frames that our safety and our lives are not expendable.

The Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services works towards strengthening the enforcement of workers’ rights through affirmative litigation, policy reform, individual representation, and community education. In collaboration with workers’ centers and community-based organizations citywide, the Workers’ Rights Program provides advice and representation to hundreds of low-income and immigrant workers each year facing a range of problems.

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About Catholic Migration Services
Since 1971 Catholic Migration Services, an affiliate agency of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, has been providing quality legal services in Brooklyn and Queens, and currently provides free legal assistance and Know Your Rights education to low-income individuals in need of immigration, housing, and workers’ rights legal services. As the first office of its kind in the country, Catholic Migration Services has served tens of thousands of immigrants regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, or immigration status.

Media Coverage
Catholic Migration Services Files Charges Against Art to Frames, for Firing Workers Denied PPE, Currents News, Monday, September 28, 2020

 

Faced with NYC funding cut, over 100 low-wage workers poised to lose legal help

During a time when going to work has the possibility of threatening our lives, organizations fighting on behalf of low-wage workers are facing cuts in funding. Our Workers’ Rights Managing Attorney Magdalena Barbosa comments in a recent article by the New York Daily News, “I’m kind of dumbfounded. There is no rationale to completely eliminate funding for a service that is just so essential right now in the midst of a pandemic.”    

Read the full story in the New York Daily News: Faced with NYC funding cut, over 100 low-wage workers poised to lose legal help

Dying to Live: Low Wage Immigrant Workers Are Sustaining New York During The Pandemic, But At What Cost?

By Thomas Power

President Trump’s April proclamation suspending entry of certain immigrants during the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery formed another example of the federal government’s enduring antagonism of immigrants. It specifically highlighted the incongruence between America’s reliance on–and treatment of–immigrant workers, especially during times of crisis.

Federal and state pandemic relief measures have explicitly exempted many immigrant workers. Instead of “staying at home” or “sheltering in place,” low-wage immigrant workers throughout this pandemic have been forced to risk their lives delivering groceries, tending to the sick and elderly as home care attendants, and producing our food in factories and warehouses. For undocumented workers, loss of wages during this pandemic has not been a viable option.

Catholic Migration Services’ Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program has received hundreds of COVID-related calls these last three months from immigrant workers. Most can generally be divided into two distinct groups: individuals who lost their jobs due to the viral outbreak and shutdown of the City, and those who continue to work or have returned to work during the pandemic and have either contracted COVID-19, or have expressed significant fear or contracting the deadly virus.

After the virtual shutdown of New York City in mid-March, an unprecedented number of workers were laid-off or furloughed due to the outbreak. In response to the record numbers of newly unemployed, the federal government’s rollout of the CARES Act was lauded as incredible progress for the unemployment insurance (UI) framework. Not only did the new legislation temporarily expand benefits to independent contractors and freelancers, recipients could now receive up to 13 more weeks of benefits, and the benefit rates were increased across the board by $600 per week. The CARES Act also designated for “Economic Impact Payments,” direct aid to individuals under a certain income threshold. Despite the progress, individuals lacking valid work authorization in the United States do not qualify for any UI relief, and those without social security numbers did not receive a penny in direct aid. Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve spoken to countless workers who qualify for neither type of relief and cannot afford rent or groceries. Many of them continue in a daily struggle to survive.

Diego, 31, a server at a Queens restaurant, is one of those workers. He was laid off in late March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He lives with his extended family of seven, all of whom have been without work since late March and do not qualify for UI. Already stretched thin financially, Diego and his family have not been able to pay rent since the outbreak and have been reliant on local pantries and social service agencies for food. They face imminent eviction after the city-wide 90-day moratorium is soon lifted, and are left without any meaningful options for their other needs.

Those who continue to work, or have returned to work, are genuinely frightened of contracting COVID-19, yet have no choice but to continue working during this crisis. These workers have been branded “essential” and are some of the real heroes of this pandemic, risking their lives to deliver necessary food, nourishment, and care to New Yorkers on a daily basis. Many of them, however, were explicitly exempted from wage replacement programs like UI and “Economic Impact Payments” because they are undocumented. This creates a truly grotesque paradox: survival depends on an ability to continue working, yet exposure to a deadly virus through work is a grave risk.

Luz, 60, a home care worker, finds herself in that paradox. She routinely logs round-the-clock, 24-hour shifts caring for a series of patients in their homes throughout the City. Constantly entering those patients’ homes makes her especially susceptible to the virus. The close quarters of her workspace, a New York City apartment, and the demands of her work, make social distancing impossible. To make matters worse, Luz’s employer won’t provide gloves and masks, so she’s forced to bring her own. Despite the risk, Luz is tethered to her job; her family’s well-being depends on her ability to keep a steady paycheck.

A recent report from the Center for Migration Studies of New York highlights America’s reliance on immigrant workers during this crisis. The report found that 74% of undocumented workers have labored during this pandemic in “essential” industries. It further estimated that in New York State, immigrants comprise 33% of health care sector workers, while across the country, 31% of agricultural workers, 21% of workers in warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment, 23% of transportation workers, and 28% of janitors and building cleaners (those who are doing disinfecting work) are immigrants.

Diego and Luz’s stories are unfortunately representative of many immigrant workers struggling to survive this pandemic. They highlight a terrifying dilemma for those who are undocumented, where they must risk their safety and health to keep their homes and put food on the table during this crisis.

As we pass three months of quarantine, immigrant workers are the enduring heartbeat of the City, sustaining New Yorkers who have been heeding the advice to self-isolate. They deliver groceries despite many feeling unsafe in stores. They work in the cramped factories that produce our food. They brave the confined quarters of the laundromats. They care for our ailing loved ones. It is through their labor that New York City has been able to flatten and bend the curve in the right direction.

In the coming weeks and months, workplaces throughout the City will begin to reopen. Now is the time for us to stand up for the immigrant workers who have sustained us during the pandemic. We must call for immediate action to ensure that employers are required to provide their employees the necessary protective equipment to keep our workers safe. Localities must provide adequate wage replacement for undocumented workers who have lost their income. Finally, to prevent massive displacement, we must immediately forgive unpaid rent from tenants struggling financially during this crisis. If we’re going to call workers “essential,” we must actually treat them as such.

* Although the stories are real, the names have been changed to protect the privacy of Catholic Migration Services’ clients.

Thomas Power is a Staff Attorney with the Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services.