‘With my savings gone and just working one day a week, I’m standing in food pantry lines for hours just to get enough to eat. I have to constantly borrow money because I am afraid that if I do not pay my rent, I could lose my home. Each day I worry, how will I ever be able to pay back the money I owe?’
For years before this pandemic began, I worked hard to build a better life for myself and my family. I took on job after job to build savings and stability, and by March of 2020, I was looking forward to a brighter future.
Then the pandemic came, and it took it all away. Last March, I had to quit my job after I came down with COVID-19 symptoms. I stayed in my room for over two weeks, the whole time checking in on my family. Just when I started to feel better, I learned that my brother had passed away from COVID-19. I was devastated.
Even as I mourned the death of my brother, I had to scramble to find the money for his burial. I was out of a job and couldn’t access unemployment benefits, and I was excluded from any federal economic relief. To pay the more than $12,000 it cost to be able to put my brother to rest, I needed to empty my savings and cobble together borrowed money from friends.
Four months later, my sister passed away from COVID-19, and soon after my mother also fell ill and passed away. I didn’t have the time or space to grieve either of their losses, because I was again searching for money to pay for their burial expenses. It’s been a year since my brother died, and I still have not been able to afford a tombstone for his grave.
Today, I’m deep in debt and have to rely on charity to survive.
While many New Yorkers have faced similar hardship, I and hundreds of thousands of other working people have had to go through all this without any lifeline from the government. Over the last year, immigrants like me and New Yorkers who have been recently released from incarceration have been excluded from federal and state aid and left to fend for themselves.
Since the pandemic began, we have called on lawmakers to create a state fund that would provide excluded workers with the same level of support that other workers have been able to receive in the form of unemployment benefits. We have marched, protested, and called and texted our legislators, but no relief has come.
Now, with the budget deadline approaching, excluded workers like me have gone on hunger strike to demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins include $3.5 billion in funding for excluded workers in the state’s budget and finally provide relief to New Yorkers. Last weekend, I joined the hunger strikers and fasted because workers like me cannot wait any longer.
With my savings gone and just working one day a week, I’m standing in food pantry lines for hours just to get enough to eat. I have to constantly borrow money because I am afraid that if I do not pay my rent, I could lose my home. Each day I worry, how will I ever be able to pay back the money I owe?
While the pandemic left me struggling to survive and even to bury my loved ones, it left New York’s billionaires richer than they’ve ever been. Since last March, the wealthiest New Yorkers have grown their wealth by more than $150 billion.
It’s not right that the rich can get richer during a year when so many people like me struggled through no fault of our own. And it’s not right that some workers can have access to government support, while others are shut out—even though we’ve all lost jobs and salary over this past year.
In a matter of days, Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders will be finalizing our budget. I am calling on our leaders to stand up for us by ending tax breaks for the wealthiest New Yorkers and establishing a $3.5 billion fund for excluded workers that will provide economic relief on par with the unemployment benefits other workers have received.
Our state leaders have a historic chance to fight for working people and families all across New York. I hope they will listen to the voices of workers who are putting their bodies on the line and deliver the relief we so badly need.
Margarita Rodriguez, is a member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @MaketheRoadNY