By the morning of March 19, when Tony Romero arrived at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a rally, he hadn’t eaten for three days. The 60-year-old, who moved to the United States from Nicaragua 15 years ago, was participating in a hunger strike to call for COVID-19 relief for New Yorkers excluded from unemployment benefits. Romero belongs to the largest group of people who didn’t get government support – undocumented workers. He has been out of work – he had been a cook and a house painter – for over a year.
“I’m on hunger strike because for the last 15 years, I’ve been paying taxes, and this is a huge injustice that I don’t have any type of social safety net right now during the pandemic,” Romero, who spoke in Spanish, said through a translator. “My landlord has been pressuring me for rent, I have kids I have to support, and I’ve been dependent on food pantries to survive.”
Romero, along with others who call themselves excluded workers and their allies, joined the hunger strike – which is still ongoing – to demand that the state provide $3.5 billion in aid to compensate workers who were left out.
Romero’s story is not unique. According to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, there are 187,000 undocumented people in New York who would benefit from a COVID-19 unemployment relief fund. Both the state Senate and the Assembly proposed a $2.1 billion dollar fund in their one-house budget resolutions. But activists and some lawmakers say $2.1 billion is not nearly enough and are still pushing for $3.5 billion, arguing that anything less would be insufficient after a year without any benefits for these workers.