The Feerick Center for Social Justice held its fourth and final Social Justice Speaker Series event of the 2021-2022 academic year on March 24, featuring Estee Ward, a staff attorney at Make the Road New York (MRNY), who spoke about the campaign to provide economic relief and ongoing benefits for New York’s low-wage essential workers. The virtual event was co-sponsored by 25 other Fordham Law student organizations, centers, and organizations.
MRNY is a grassroots organization that works to raise labor standards for workers through legal services, organizing, and advocacy. Ward spoke about the organization’s efforts to help build a “safety net” for New York’s immigrant and undocumented workers, who are often excluded from social supports.
She described MRNY’s statewide “Excluded No More Coalition” (previously the “Fund Excluded Workers Coalition”), which launched in the spring of 2020 to advocate for increased financial support to vulnerable workers excluded from federal stimulus programs and unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic. These workers are “people who keep New York running day after day,” said Ward, such as street vendors, day laborers, and restaurant workers.
Excluded Workers Ask For Much-Needed Pandemic Support
When the federal government expanded coverage and payment assistance for self-employed workers and independent contractors at the beginning of the pandemic, millions of workers were still left out. These workers, including undocumented workers, pay billions towards taxes each year, and yet do not benefit from the same protections as other workers, according to Ward.
“Many were so desperate for cash that some of my clients accepted any new job they could find, like cleaning the subways or engaging in unlicensed construction work,” Ward said. “They had to make the impossible choice between starvation and exposure to a disease that was already disproportionately ravaging immigrant Black and brown communities.”
To assist workers, MRNY helped organize food pantries in Queens and Brooklyn and bike brigades that delivered food to local community members, as well as digital organizing campaigns and private relief efforts that provided cash assistance.
“While it was really beautiful to see those efforts arise—and I think some of them highlight mutual aid at its best—it really wasn’t enough,” Ward said.
In response to these needs, MRNY initiated its campaign to ask the New York State government to fund assistance for excluded workers. After organizers worked on a number of direct actions—including a 23-day hunger strike—the organization’s efforts were successful. In April 2021, state lawmakers added $2.1 billion to the state budget, allowing those excluded from other benefits to access government relief.
Ward explained that workers who qualified for the fund could receive a single payment of up to $15,600. “Just imagine how impactful that must be for someone who’s behind on their debt, hasn’t been able to pay their electricity bills, hasn’t been able to find a job for the last year, [and]has kids to feed,” said Ward.
Perspectives on “Movement Lawyering”
Ward also provided insights into the work of “movement lawyering,” which the American Bar Association defines as “taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers, as opposed to imposing our leadership or expertise as legal advocates.”
While MRNY lawyers were included at all stages of organizing, said Ward, the majority of participants in steering committees and other mobilizing groups were non-lawyer organizers and activists.
Still, lawyers were able to play a different role, including providing valuable insight informed by their own casework (in Ward’s case, representing low-wage immigrant workers in employment matters), as well as drafting legislation, reviewing popular education materials and press releases, advising legislators and organizers on various legal issues, and attending direct actions as legal observers. Other times, they simply helped foster connections between the community and the organization.
“Some of what I did involved just sitting with my clients and other members who turned up for the action,” said Ward. “A big part of my job was just being in community with my clients and members of Make the Road, engaging in conversation with them, and building relationships with our organizers so that we could work in solidarity with each other and move the campaign forward.”
Next Steps in the Fight Towards Worker Justice
Unfortunately, after just a few months, the state fund set aside for low wage essential workers was depleted, leaving around 175,000 eligible workers still excluded. MRNY has continued its campaign, asking the state government to add another $3 billion to the fund and to create a permanent program that would allow undocumented workers to access unemployment insurance and health benefits. However, the proposed state budget from the New York State Assembly and Senate released in mid-March 2022 did not include MRNY’s funding request.
During her presentation, Ward read aloud MRNY’s response to the budget decision and outlined why government support was so crucial for workers:
“For two years leaders have clapped for essential workers. We have held parades in their honor and put up plaques. Yet hundreds of thousands of essential workers who lost work during the pandemic have been left to fend for themselves without a single penny of assistance from the state. Excluded workers have called for more than applause. They have demanded that state lawmakers end the exclusions that make it impossible for them to get access to the same level of financial support other workers can get in case of a crisis.”