Rubiela Correa lost her primary job as a house cleaner at the very start of the pandemic, and her second job looking after an elderly couple a few weeks later. Unable to find work or make rent, the 44-year-old was forced to move out of her Queens apartment. She landed in the city’s shelter system, but didn’t feel safe. At her lowest point, she said, she slept inside JFK Airport.

“I am surviving on favors,” Correa, who is now staying temporarily with a friend, told Gothamist through a translator. For the first time since arriving in the country nine years ago, she is not sending a portion of her income back to her son in Colombia. She’s borrowed money to make ends meet, and still owes four months of back rent to a former landlord. “I can’t think straight because the debt is so overwhelming in my daily life,” she added.

Correa is one of an estimated 274,000 New York residents who lost work due to COVID-19, but haven’t received any federal or state relief — either because of their immigration status or because they were incarcerated for part of the pandemic — according to a new report from the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute.

Earlier this week, dozens of those workers launched a hunger strike to push Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a $3.5 billion “excluded worker fund.”

Rubiela Correa

The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly each included $2.1 billion for excluded workers in their $200 billion one-house budgets. The hunger strikers and some lawmakers hope to raise that figure to $3.5 billion by the time the state budget is due on April 1.

“It’s not just that they deserve it, it’s that they’ve earned it,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, a sponsor of the excluded worker fund. She noted many undocumented immigrants risked their lives during the pandemic in essential jobs.

A report by the city comptroller found 36 percent of cleaning service workers don’t have legal status.

“We trust them to help us raise our kids, to clean our houses, to take care of our elder parents,” Ramos continued, while speaking at a press conference on Friday in Manhattan as part of a “Fast for the Forgotten” campaign to bring attention to the fund. “We trust them to do some of the most meaningful, vulnerable and personal work.”

Undocumented immigrants weren’t able to receive unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, or other government assistance in any of the federal stimulus packages. Many relied on food donations and cash assistance from private philanthropy to pay their bills. People leaving incarceration also can’t get unemployment because they didn’t pay income taxes.

“These are the men and women who have kept our city afloat,” Carmen De La Rosa, a State Assemblymember representing northern Manhattan, told the group. “They want this money to be able to stay in their homes, to be able to feed their kids.”

Cuomo’s proposed budget, unveiled in January, did not include any money for workers previously left out of pandemic relief. Inquiries to the Governor’s Office about whether he would support the fund were not returned.

Under the $3.5 billion plan supported by advocates, those eligible would receive retroactive payments starting next month, followed by flat monthly payments of up to $3,300 through the remainder of the year. It would be overseen by the State Comptroller, and funded by new taxes on the wealthy and corporations that, if passed, would raise roughly $7 billion.

“The need is urgent,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative. “Unemployment insurance has been a lifesaver to so many New Yorkers. This would extend that same help to people who have been left out of federal aid.”

He said the $2.1 billion approved by the Democratic-led assembly and senate represents the federal unemployment aid these workers would have received: $600 a week in the first stimulus and $300 in the next two packages. He said $3.5 billion would also include their share of state unemployment, and he called the expense worthwhile.

“At a time when the economy is depressed, we really need people to be able to keep their families going,” he explained. “But we also need the stores to have some activity.”

Andrew Rein, the president of the more fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission, has pushed back against the proposed tax hikes. In a statement this week, he described the legislature's proposal as "economically risky," claiming it could make it harder for "businesses to thrive" in New York.

The senate’s Republican minority already considers the Democrats’ spending plan too expensive, with too many tax increases.

“This wild spending binge will hurt taxpayers and damage our economy for years to come,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, after his Democratic colleagues approved their one-house budget bill last week.

But advocates of the excluded workers fund contend the relief could also be covered by the most recent stimulus, which sent $12.6 billion in direct aid to New York.

As lawmakers and the governor scramble to reach a budget agreement ahead of the April 1st deadline, the excluded worker fund hangs in the balance, with potentially life-changing impacts for some of the city’s hardest hit residents.

“The level of desperation is not understood right now. Families are spending the majority of their lives waiting in line for food,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project. The group’s membership, many of whom are undocumented, have seen a 70% drop-off in earnings during the pandemic, and are still reeling from early days of lockdown. “Families are spending the majority of their lives waiting in line for food.”

The hope, according to Kaufman-Gutierrez, is that progressives in the legislature will succeed in pushing a scandal-scarred Cuomo toward funding a more robust relief program than he might otherwise embrace.

“We have the same food to buy, the same rent to pay,” said Correa, the former house cleaner. “They need to treat us like equal human beings.”