Credit: Ambar Castillo

There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

Last Friday, about a hundred excluded workers, faith leaders, and advocates rallied at Pershing Park speaking in Spanish, Amharic, and English. Their demand was amplified via mic and clearly written on bright neon signs: “$200 Millones.” Testimonies of folks—domestic workers and other non-contract workers who had stopped working during the pandemic for fear of transmitting the virus to their families or been let go due to the same concerns—swelled near the World War I Memorial. 

When the Excluded Workers Coalition, parents pushing strollers, and children carrying noisemakers and signs, at last began to march on the 90-something degree day, their chants were audible against neighboring traffic: “Don’t exclude us!” “We are the workers, mighty, mighty workers/ Fighting for justice, 200 Million!” 

They were asking the D.C. Council, which held the first of two votes on the FY 2022 budget yesterday, to increase support for excluded workers. The budget the Council voted on earmarked $35 million for excluded workers (which amounts to a one-time payment of about $3,000 per worker for about 13,000 excluded workers in D.C.). Critics say this amount is unlivable after excluded workers only received a one-time payment of $1,000 at the start of the pandemic. Some excluded workers don’t have formal rent agreements and thus haven’t been protected by the eviction moratorium, incurring debt while unable to pay for rent and living expenses. The $200 million they were asking lawmakers to include in the FY 2022 budget is less than half of what excluded workers would need in order to achieve parity with folks receiving unemployment benefits, according to a report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. 

Excluded workers are people who are ineligible to receive federal aid and economic protections even during a pandemic because they primarily rely on non-traditional sources of income. They include:

  • Undocumented workers
  • Returning citizens, or people who were formerly incarcerated
  • People who are part of the cash gig economy, such as domestic workers, day laborers, sex workers, restaurant workers, and street vendors

Noemi, one of the attendees at the Friday rally and a mother of two, has struggled to survive after she, who used to clean houses, and her husband, who did construction work, both lost their jobs. She says they borrowed money from neighbors and friends once they ran through all their savings. 

Another attendee, 78-year-old Mario Monasterios, a Bolivian immigrant who worked as a welder before the pandemic, is disabled and can no longer do his job, so he has been active in the Trabajadores Unidos immigrant labor rights group since last year. 

“We’re not only fighting out of necessity, not just fighting for money,” Reina from Ward 4, a former domestic worker, told City Paper. “We’re fighting for our values, our representation, all of this work that we do.”

“There’s a lack of humanity,” said labor rights activist Celestino Barrera, “when people earning $150,000 or $200,000 per year aren’t compassionate enough or in sufficient solidarity with city workers to give them aid through public funds—which we all pay taxes on.”

When Barrera says “all,” he means the average excluded worker, including undocumented workers: A 2020 report from the Fiscal Policy Institute shows that, nationwide, undocumented folks’ work for the past decade pre-pandemic contributed to $13 billion in Unemployment Insurance taxes—despite them not being able to collect the benefits. And that’s on top of billions more in Medicare contributions, federal personal income tax, Social Security, and state and local sales, property, and income taxes that undocumented workers pay annually.

The rally ended hours later with the release of balloons at the steps of the Wilson Building, but protesters already had plans for part two: a visit to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s house on Monday. 

One of the signs children of excluded workers carried to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s home on Monday / Credit: Sophia Miyoshi

While the D.C. Council passed a marginal tax hike for high-income residents yesterday to support a few key programs, advocates like Katharine Landfield were disappointed that many of the same councilmembers didn’t vote with the “same spirit of equity” for At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s amendment to raise the budget to give $6 million more to excluded workers, essential workers, and allow for more STAY DC sign-ups.

Judy Estey from The Platform of Hope points out that it’s ironic that the tax hike includes support for child-care educators, yet excluded workers—many of whom are child care workers—weren’t supported. 

When excluded workers similarly took to the streets last year demanding relief, Mendelson’s home was also a rally stop after he said that their ask was infeasible.

What Did Mendelson Have to Say to Excluded Workers?

When about 20 folks from the Excluded Workers Coalition showed up at Chairman Mendelson’s house Monday evening after the chairman announced he would not increase the $35 million already allocated in the budget for excluded workers, Mendelson argued that excluded workers have rent assistance programs that can keep them afloat. The Council chairman sought to quell families’ and advocates’ concerns by referencing the phased rent eviction law that he proposed and the Council passed last week, which he said ensures landlords can’t evict tenants who haven’t paid rent if they haven’t first applied for rent assistance through programs like STAY DC and Emergency Rent Assistance Program (ERAP). 

But such programs are not a panacea, according to excluded workers and advocates at the Monday rally. 

Some workers pointed out that they’re unable to apply to such programs due to the onerous requirements for excluded workers who may not have a formal contract with their landlords or the necessary IDs. One man said that while he has been lucky enough to qualify for STAY DC funds, many other excluded workers don’t, as many live in one room with their families and are thus unable to show proof of residence. 

Angelica Lopez from Ward 2 relayed how her application had been denied, according to STAY DC representatives, because she lived in an 80-unit building instead of a 50-unit one—something Mendelson said was not the law. 

Others pointed out that, even for folks who do qualify for STAY DC, it isn’t all about rent—particularly for excluded workers who did what they had to do to survive when they didn’t have income these past 16 months. 

“The reason children go hungry is because their parents are terrified that they’re going to lose their apartments,” Landfield told Mendelson, “so they pay the rent and they borrow or they sell their car to pay the rent, and that money cannot get made back by STAY DC.”

The city can’t afford $200 million without cutting vital costs elsewhere, Mendelson told the group, shifting his weight. One excluded worker’s 8-year-old daughter, clad in a yellow flowered shirt and carrying a matching sign, had just stepped forward to ask him to listen to them “because I need to eat and a house to survive” before stepping back with a nervous giggle towards her mother. 

One quarter of the budget goes toward education and another quarter to human service programs, said Mendelson. “Which one do we cut? These aren’t easy decisions,” he told the crowd of excluded workers and their children in front of his home.

Advocates take issue with what they see as a zero-sum argument. “We can invest $40 million in hotels but not the people who work in the hotels,” says Estey.  

Councilmembers Silverman, Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4), and Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) sided with Silverman’s now-failed amendment. But advocates say the fight isn’t over: The Excluded Workers Coalition plans to keep rallying for their cause ahead of the second budget vote on Aug. 3, including at the homes of councilmembers who had paid lip service to excluded workers but didn’t vote for Silverman’s amendment. They might exclude Mendelson’s house as a rally stop this time.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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