Those who are eligible for vaccination because of their jobs must present documentation of their work, like an ID card, a letter from their employer or a pay stub—what one advocate calls ‘an unnecessary and insurmountable barrier,’ for those who lack work authorization.

Jeanmarie Evelly

Restaurant staffers, including food delivery workers, are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in New York City.

Last week, New York expanded the categories of workers who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which now includes restaurant employees — a move that comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo will allow eateries to resume indoor dining ahead of Valentine’s Day.

But the limited supply of available vaccine doses continues to be an issue, making it difficult for those now eligible to secure a coveted appointment. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that slots would be reserved specifically for food service workers and taxi drivers at the city’s new vaccination hub at Citi Field, an effort to ensure “the folks we depend on” get access to the shots. “Folks who really have taken care of us and were there throughout this whole crisis,” de Blasio said.

In addition to short supply, advocates say there are other barriers that could hinder eligible essential workers from getting vaccinated — including New York’s own proof-of-eligibility requirements. Under the state’s plan, those who are eligible for vaccination because of their jobs must present documentation of their work, like an ID card, a letter from their employer or a pay stub.

Obtaining such documents could be challenging for workers in low-wage industries, immigrant workers and those without work authorization, advocates say. While other categories of New Yorkers are also asked to provide proof of their vaccine eligibility — those 65 and up, for instance, must present something to demonstrate their age and New York residency — that type of documentation is usually easier to come by, while proof-of-work criteria can be harder.

“The employment piece is very concerning,” says Becca Telzak, director of health programs with Make the Road New York. “Undocmented immigrants in general will have a very hard time with this.”

Immigrant New Yorkers make up 31 percent of workers with jobs deemed “essential” by the state, according to an analysis by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. These include those working in many of the categories now eligible for vaccinations: Undocumented immigrants account for 11 percent of the state’s health care workers and elderly aides, and include 74,700 staffers in the restaurant industry, 72,500 in construction jobs and more than 7,000 child care workers, the same report found. 

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

“We’re talking about the people who have been keeping the state open for the last 10 months,” says Max Hadler, director of health policy of the New York Immigration Coalition, who called the proof-of-work requirements “an unnecessary and insurmountable barrier.”

Some undocumented workers, he and other advocates say, may not feel comfortable approaching their employers for a work letter, while some employers — particularly those who pay workers in cash — might also be hesitant to provide them.

“Some [workers] do not have work authorization. Some of them may not have a positive relationship with their employer,” Hadler says. “Forcing them to be able to provide this evidence to access a lifesaving vaccine that is supposed to be prioritized for them, because they’re helping keep the state open, is unacceptable.”

The debate over who should get early access to the vaccine has dominated public discussion since New York began distributing doses in mid-December, and fears over ineligible people gaming the system and cutting the line have intensified in recent weeks, particularly as supply remains limited. A SoulCycle instructor faced public backlash recently for getting vaccinated — under the eligibility of being an “educator” — igniting anger over how stringent vaccination sites are being when it comes to checking people meet the eligibility criteria.

But advocates fear the opposite: That such criteria will discourage those who are actually eligible and performing front-line work from getting their dose. 

“They’re the folks that really do deserve to get the vaccines,” Telzak says. “Any extra barrier you create will make it that more challenging.”

Demographic breakdowns of who’s getting vaccinated already reveal disparities between certain groups, reinforcing worries that the vaccine rollout has not done enough to reach communities of color. As of Tuesday, white New Yorkers accounted for 46 percent of the city residents who’ve received at least one vaccine dose, while Latino and Asian residents accounted for 16 percent each and Black residents for 12 percent. More than a quarter of total doses administered here were given to people who live outside the city (58 percent of whom were white, data shows).

“We’re not surprised that it’s white, mostly privileged communities who are getting vaccinated ahead of those essential workers who are still running our city,” says Ligia Guallpa, executive director for the Workers Justice Project, which advocates for better work conditions for immigrants employed in low-wage industries, including food delivery workers, domestic workers and day laborers. “Privileged communities have been able to benefit — they work in jobs where it’s easier for them to come up with all these requirements.”

When asked if the state offers any accommodations to undocumented workers who are eligible for vaccination but can’t obtain proof-of-work documents, the state’s Department of Health referred City Limits to the list of accepted proof-of-eligibility forms listed on the state’s website. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the agency pointed to efforts New York has undertaken to increase access for immigrant residents, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s launch of a Vaccine Equity Task Force in December, and offering information through the state’s online vaccine eligibility tool and telephone hotline in multiple languages.

“Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said that the vaccination will only work if we hit a critical mass of the population, including undocumented immigrants and people with low incomes, and successfully lobbied the federal government to remove provisions from the its vaccination program that would have adversely impacted these populations,” Health Department Spokeswoman Jill Montag said. “All currently eligible people, regardless of income level or immigration status, should make an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Guallpa, meanwhile, says the city and state should be collaborating directly with community-based organizations like the Workers Justice Project to create a “referral” system, where grassroots groups that have already been working with immigrant communities can help vouch for those who are eligible but unable to obtain formal proof of their work. These community groups can help to verify workers’ positions and provide that documentation in lieu of their employers, she says. 

“We have around 5,000 members,” Guallpa says. “We know who died, we know who got sick, we know who has been and is still doing the essential work.”