A year ago, I lost my job, my apartment and my brother to COVID-19. Since the pandemic hit, I have been struggling to survive, rationing out my savings to buy basic necessities like hand sanitizer or a roll of toilet paper and relying on food pantries and the generosity of others to be able to have food to eat.
Excluded from federal and state aid, hundreds of workers like me have faced this reality for the past year. That is why last month, I began a hunger strike with dozens of excluded workers to demand that the New York State budget provide relief for excluded workers. Yesterday, after 23 days, we shared our first meal as we celebrate the creation of a $2.1 billion fund for excluded workers.
The pandemic took everything I had. I lost my job as soon as the shutdown began. My boss said we would be out of work for about a month, but it’s been a year and my job has not opened back up. I also contracted COVID-19 in those early days of the pandemic, falling very ill. In the midst of trying to recover, my landlord began to harass me and I eventually had to leave my apartment. Then, just when I was beginning to feel better, a call came in, notifying me of my brother’s death. Everything seemed to be falling apart.
Meanwhile, as others in the state received expanded unemployment and stimulus payments, I got nothing. Undocumented workers like me do not have access to unemployment benefits or federal economic relief, despite having worked, paid taxes and paid into the unemployment system that kept other New Yorkers afloat during the pandemic.
Over the past year, excluded workers from across the state have called on Gov. Cuomo and legislators to provide immediate relief to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers left out of government economic relief. We have made thousands of calls to elected officials, held dozens of protests, led massive marches across the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, held a hunger strike and more.
After 23 days without food, my body aches, my head hurts and my stomach is still in pain, but this strike was our last resort. Our communities had demanded help for a year, and still we saw no relief in sight. We decided to put our lives on the line so that our leaders in Albany would pay attention and bear witness to the urgent need in our communities.
Our efforts paid off. An unprecedented $2.1 billion excluded workers fund will now be a reality.
The fund for excluded workers will be life-changing. Over the course of the pandemic, I have often lain in bed, overwhelmed by grief from the loss of my brother, but also terrified of how I will be able to recover from all of my debts. As I await further details on the application process for the fund, I know this money will allow me and New Yorkers to get back on our feet.
With money in our pockets, hundreds of thousands of workers like me will be able to feed ourselves and our loved ones. We will stimulate the economy in the process. I will be able to buy food and groceries at my local stores, purchase personal necessities like toothpaste and toilet paper and even start looking for an apartment so that I can have a place to live in again.
While I celebrate this incredible win with my fellow hunger strikers, we also know that many will still be left out. Our movement, with support from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, beat back the most harmful of Cuomo’s attempts to reduce the size of the fund and make it impossible for most undocumented people to access. But some barriers remain, including requirements for documentation that many excluded workers simply do not have.
Excluded workers tirelessly fought for equitable relief. This victory is a testament to our organizing power. For those of us who have gone more than three weeks without food, it is finally time to savor a meal again.
Idrovo participated in the 23-day hunger strike and is a member of Make the Road New York.