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A caravan of more than 20 cars lined the streets of Northwest D.C. on Saturday, with one pick-up truck carrying melodies from Mexican folkloric band Son la Lucha. Some were plastered with banners and balloons and many sported signs that read “Don’t Exclude Me” or “No Justice, No Brunch” as masked child passengers poked their heads out. All honked and protested the exclusion of about 15,000 workers in the District from government support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With the second D.C. Council budget vote tomorrow, these advocates and excluded workers are up against the clock when it comes to demanding more funding.
Their path through the intersection of 14th and U streets NW was clear: Excluded workers and advocates were heading to the homes of D.C. councilmembers who had voted against at-large councilmember Elissa Silverman’s proposal to add $6 million more to the $35 million excluded worker fund during the first budget vote two weeks ago. For excluded workers, the budget as it stands would mean a one-time payment of $3,000 per worker after receiving only a one-time payment of $1,000 last year and not qualifying for unemployment benefits or stimulus checks during the past 17 months. This population is already particularly vulnerable to incurring debt: Many encountered disproportionate job losses in their fields due to COVID-19 and informal rent agreements with landlords that didn’t abide by the eviction moratorium. The return of the indoors mask mandate is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
“Many of us have lost our ability to pay rent, pay for food, everything,” said Margarita Crespo from the Restaurant Opportunity Center. She was standing with about 50 members of the Excluded Workers Coalition outside Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s home, one of several stops the group made on Thursday evening. “Some of us are back at work, but it’s not the same—we’re still working 3 days a week instead of what we used to work, so we are not caught up … and when we haven’t seen a lot of support in other ways … we’re not able to recover.”
Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto’s home was one of the most anticipated visits for the Excluded Workers Coalition—and one of the most disappointing. Pinto, who soon after being voted into the Council last year offered a steady supply of social media support for excluded workers, voted against the additional funding for this community on July 20. While the coalition paid a visit to Chairman Phil Mendelson ahead of the first budget vote, advocates later pivoted to focus on other councilmembers who had voted “no,” particularly those like Pinto who they feel have only paid lip service to the cause. During the coalition’s more than 15-minute wait outside her house, as honks, cheers, and protests via loudspeaker continued to fill the streets, Pinto didn’t come out to talk. Only her “secret service” greeted the coalition, joked one excluded worker, referring to the councilmember’s air of self-protection as she stayed inside.
But Allen showed the coalition he was on board. During a half-hour talk with Spanish-speaking excluded workers (with help from interpreters) on Thursday evening, Allen spent most of his time before tucking his own children into bed listening to the stories of workers’ struggles and hopes around their children. Norma from Ward 2 told him she was fighting for her son, who had suffered from depression while plagued with worries about his family and watching the news of others’ families becoming homeless due to the toll of the pandemic. Allen committed to fighting for more money for the proposed $35 million fund, telling the crowd he would meet with Mendelson Friday about several budget items, the excluded workers fund among them. Allen was one of several other councilmembers who were at home and open to talking to workers— including At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, who made a brief appearance amid the squalls of her child but didn’t commit to anything related to Silverman’s proposal.
Fact-Checking the Exclusions
Despite the Excluded Workers Coalition’s many such recent public awareness appearances, misconceptions about excluded workers still abound. City Paper fact-checked a few of the most prevalent:
- Excluded workers are basically undocumented workers
Many excluded workers span the spectrum of essential workers: from day laborers and street vendors to home aides and nannies. Many of these workers aren’t undocumented but are part of the cash-gig economy. Ward 2 ANC commissioner Trupti Patel, who lost her hospital job due to the pandemic and was part of the cash-gig economy, is one of them. Aaron DeVaul, a Spaces in Action advocate who has also marched as an ally of the Excluded Workers Coalition and received child care from family members other than his parents, recognizes excluded child care workers in his own family.
“Excluded worker” status in the U.S. is rooted in the Black experience just as much as that of the migrant or immigrant worker. Traditionally, the status also extends to exclusions from labor rights, not just pandemic relief and other government aid, so it has included (really, excluded) many more people than one might think. During the New Deal era, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act excluded farm and domestic workers, at that time mostly Black folks, from legal protections and workers’ rights.
Today, workers excluded from these labor rights include some professionals, independent contractors such as unaffiliated personal trainers and other freelancers, as well as some graduate students and employees of religious institutions. Last year, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act that sought to add more folks to labor-protective status, but it’s unlikely to pass the Senate. Outside this labor rights labyrinth, the excluded workers rallying in the streets of D.C. these days reflect some of the same racial, ethnic, and immigration status exclusions from federal aid and protections from 86 years ago.
“When the majority of the people who have fallen through the cracks or been frozen out of everything have been Black and Brown residents,” Patel said after a rally before the first budget vote, wiping sweat off her forehead, “that should tell you that these policies are skewed to harming and destroying communities of color and depriving them from thriving.”
- Excluded workers who are undocumented don’t pay taxes
The belief that all undocumented workers don’t pay taxes was one of the biggest pieces of misinformation to hit New York during highly contested debates before the state approved $2.1 billion for an Excluded Workers Fund in April. But as City Paper has reported, a Fiscal Policy Institute report last year showed that undocumented folks contributed billions in unemployment insurance taxes, and billions more in Medicare contributions and other taxes that undocumented workers pay annually.
- “If you’re poor, then it’s your fault for being lazy or choosing the wrong line of work”
This one comes courtesy of Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax’s piece on stigma and what she calls our finger-pointing culture that puts the onus on others for hardship and protects the illusion that our choices or status shield us from the bad things.
“It’s a toxic narrative that … large swaths of the workforce are lazy, that they don’t want to work,” Patel says. “That’s completely false—it’s actually extremely expensive to be poor in this country.”
Carla Canales, who worked cleaning houses before COVID-19, told City Paper at a rally before the first budget vote that she was willing to work without health insurance, despite the risk of contracting the virus and her pregnancy, but her employers let her go.
Advocate Dia King from DC for Democracy, who led chants during the Excluded Workers Coalition rally before the first budget vote, told City Paper that two of the biggest misconceptions about more funding for excluded workers are that it’s free money and that folks aren’t worthy.
“I think folks have drank the Kool Aid, and believe the media…that [excluded workers] don’t deserve it,” he said, motioning to coalition members around him who continued to chant after an hours-long march. “You work, and you should get paid—I don’t care who you are. These guys work really, really hard … they worked just like we did. If we got assistance, so should they.”
- D.C. doesn’t have the money to give more support to excluded workers
Opponents of the D.C. tax hike—some of whom, like Mendelson, are the same officials who have claimed there isn’t enough in the city budget to raise the funding for excluded workers—have pointed out the billions D.C. stands to receive in federal relief funds over the next three years. Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser has called for the Council to find $11 million to fund more cops as one of her principal anti-violence proposals. All this has led advocates for excluded worker support like DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Senior Policy Analyst Doni Crawford to question the zero-sum approach that politicians take when it comes to this cause.
A statement the DC Excluded Worker Coalition addressed to the Council this afternoon reads: “Once again, excluded workers have been left out of the budget conversation and their needs ignored. Even worse, rather than acting on the suggestions for funding sources for excluded workers generated by … Crawford, we now see these same funds are being proposed for more police.” In the letter, the coalition calls for the Council to put infrastructure funds towards meeting excluded workers’ demand of $200 million this budget year.
- Excluded workers have rent assistance programs that help them stay afloat
As City Paper reported last month, this was Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s no-rallying cry to excluded workers who showed up at his home before the first budget vote and his go-to argument for not raising the budget for the proposed excluded workers fund. But programs like STAY DC aren’t the cure-all for excluded workers’ woes. As advocates have pointed out, rent assistance doesn’t cover food and other basic needs. Additionally, some excluded workers have reported issues with STAY DC applications that have either made it difficult for them to complete the forms or rendered workers ineligible.
Norma from Ward 2, for instance, says she applied for STAY DC funds when applications first went out, and while employees were amiable, they would give her conflicting information about application discrepancies and ask her to reapply for reasons she didn’t understand. Other excluded workers report that the list of STAY DC required documents can mean some undocumented workers and those with informal rent agreements may not qualify.
In an email to City Paper, the Office of the Attorney General said that residents who have informal agreements with their landlords can show proof of residence by using bank statements, check/money order stubs, or a letter from the landlord verifying their tenancy. For cash-gig workers who don’t have banking accounts and those who may not be able to procure a letter from their landlord, it’s still unclear how viable these options would be.
OAG recently released a plan for five in-person clinics, listed below, purported to help residents navigate obstacles to completing STAY DC applications, including language access issues, technological barriers, disability, and illiteracy.
According to the OAG, volunteers will assist the tenants in completing a self-attestation form to explain their circumstances when they are unable to provide a lease or sublease. The clinic will also brainstorm with the residents other documents they can use to stand in for required ones.
While it’s up in the air how many excluded workers will qualify for STAY DC assistance, STAY DC application clinics will run as follows:
August 3, 6 p.m.–9 p.m.
Ward 2: Luther Place Memorial Church, 1226 Vermont Ave. NW
August 10, 6 p.m.–9 p.m.
Ward 8: Hart Middle School, 601 Mississippi Ave. SE
August 19, 6 p.m.–9 p.m.
Ward 8: Hart Middle School, 601 Mississippi Ave. SE
August 28, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Ward 7: Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, 3939 Benning Road NE
September 18, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Ward 7: East Washington Heights Baptist Church: 2220 Branch Ave. SE
Meanwhile, excluded workers continue to fight, sans caravans, to get their voices heard before the Council budget vote tomorrow. Another visit to Chairman Mendelson’s house is due after the reported discussion he had with Councilmember Allen Friday. And the jury is still out on which councilmember can best rock the “Up! The Funds” poster with their faces holding balloons a la Pixar—Chairman Mendelson’s and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s posters make solid contenders.
This post has been updated with a statement from the DC Excluded Worker Coalition.
—Ambar Castillo (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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