The John A. Wilson Building. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Thousands of D.C. residents lost pandemic-related federal unemployment benefits late last week. Folks who had exhausted their benefits period, some who were ineligible for traditional benefits, and all who were receiving a $300 weekly boost to help recover more of their lost wages can no longer receive these benefits. While District residents and advocacy organizations have taken to social media in recent weeks to protest local officials not extending the programs, one group that has been excluded from unemployment benefits all along continues to forge ahead: excluded workers. 

The OGs Excluded from Unemployment Benefits

As City Paper has reported, undocumented workers, who represent a large segment of excluded workers, contributed to $13 billion in unemployment insurance taxes in 2020 despite them not being able to collect the benefits. 

New fears folks who just lost their benefits are grappling with—how to keep food on the table, choosing between high-risk, low-paying jobs to pay rent or potentially losing their homes—are ones excluded workers know all too well. Apart from not qualifying for unemployment benefits, some excluded workers don’t have formal rent agreements. They haven’t been protected by the eviction moratorium and have faced issues applying for rental assistance. Some incurred debt while unable to pay for rent and living expenses. 

In August, the D.C. Council didn’t approve the Excluded Workers Coalition’s requested $200 million to aid the roughly 15,000 excluded workers in the District, voting for a $41 million budget allocation instead. The measure amounts to a $3,000 one-time payment per worker. 

Excluded workers in D.C. have drawn attention to their plight. This year, the coalition and allies have rallied at Pershing Park, paid home visits to councilmembers carrying Up-themed signs featuring officials’ faces, and coordinated a musical caravan of more than 20 vehicles through the streets of Northwest D.C. 

But their fight didn’t end with a final musical note from Son la Lucha, the band that accompanied their caravan early last month. Coalition members are meeting today to discuss next steps. City Paper spoke to three excluded workers actively involved in the movement about their morale, lessons learned from their efforts, and their hopes as they reimagine and plan for the future of their campaign.   

Our Loss, Our Gain

Charity from Ward 7 was involved in United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization, with her college-bound son before becoming a mainstay at Excluded Workers Coalition events. Her experience with grassroots organizing and advocacy helped her recognize that it’s the process of community power-building, not just the outcome campaign, of which these advocates are proud. 

“When you are in a position where you’re vulnerable—you know, you feel you’re not being heard,” she says of many excluded workers, “just to be part of the process, and having the platform or having somebody give you a platform to say, ‘Look, you can speak for yourself … tell us how you feel’ … and have a community of people that understand what you’re going through … that process was very therapeutic.”

This long exercise in empowerment touched many participants, mostly but not all women, she said. With male excluded workers often socialized to conceal vulnerability, for them to find themselves in a community encouraging them to “speak what’s in their heart, which they may not be able to say … to anybody else who’s not going through the same thing,” was part of “a significant victory,” Charity says. 

A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Plight

The difficulty in expressing problems is not gender-specific, Charity says, but rather tied to a greater problem underscored by the pandemic: mental health issues. To her, the disparities in how privilege facilitates or impedes a person’s coping abilities have never been clearer:

“If those people with means have mental issues, what about the people without the means, you know, and where do they go? … Because it’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, yeah, you can go talk to … psychologists’ or whatever, but we know that our communities are not going to those. They’re not attending … because there’s no time to even do that.”

Physical survival trumps mental health in this model of Maslow’s hierarchy, particularly with many communities of color in which psychotherapy is still stigmatized. The campaign work, which offered a platform and social connection with others walking the same path, met a social-emotional need some folks might have not even known they had. 

True to the gold standard for social justice campaigns, the excluded workers campaign’s victory was in part its visibility. “The District budget is a moral document and this inclusion brings visibility to excluded workers in the city,” reads an Aug. 11th statement from the D.C. Excluded Workers Council and Excluded Workers Coalition, which also acknowledges their disappointment in Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council’s role in denying excluded workers to be close to parity with workers included in benefits. 

But for Charity, there was also a win in what excluded workers had built for each other: “a home to belong to.” The advocate says she, in being surrounded by folks united in a single cause, “gained an extended family.”

Lessons Learned

How to Accept What You Can’t Control

For Charity, the most challenging part of the experience was the emotional exhaustion of caring so much while politicians did so little. She recalls sitting in Zoom meetings or pleading her case in person to councilmembers, thinking she and her comrades got through to their representatives, only to be blindsided when it came to a Council vote. “To take that and still fight another day,” she says, was a lesson in perseverance. 

Reina Moreno from Ward 4 saw this tenacity and acceptance of what they couldn’t control reflected in their response to councilmembers’ actions during home visits. Even when councilmembers weren’t home or didn’t come out to hear the excluded workers, coalition members rallied outside, left handmade signs, and memorialized their visits with photos and balloon souvenirs they left in front of the homes.   

How to Pick Up the Mic

Moreno’s involvement in the movement has made her a star of sorts—outside of City Paper, her story has been featured in the Post, and she was often among the first to speak outside councilmembers’ houses and at rallies. Her presence wasn’t just verbal: At marches like the one at Pershing Park, she was the one at the front holding a “Don’t Exclude Me” banner with words in Spanish, English, and Amharic. But the former domestic worker grew into her vocal presence: She used to be shy, she tells City Paper

Moreno had been on the sidelines in other movements, like the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, but she learned to step up to the mic during the excluded workers campaign when she saw councilmembers needed to hear her and others’ stories. “When else do people like us get a chance to talk with local officials [face to face]?” she asks in Spanish.

“I was happy they listened, that they came to know our work has worth and dignity,” Moreno says, “that we, for instance … take care of geriatrics, children, homes, that I could express myself and feel the [councilmembers] heard my message, that we work hard, that we don’t just come and take from this country, that we contribute and give to the community.”

Norma from Ward 1 also sees taking the mic as a communal act. “It’s not just your voice alone, it’s everyone’s voice,” she says in Spanish, “because you’re not looking out for yourself, you’re looking out for the community.” 

How to Make Room to Fight

“Regardless of our background, we’re all here with the same purpose: helping those that need it most,” Norma says. “When businesses shuttered, we started to fight. And it was tough to always make space for the struggle—we all have responsibilities at home and with our children. But we had to carve out that time and our humanity, whether it’s [compassion for] our neighbors or strangers.”

It helped that her partner was supportive. On days where work at home and in the campaign were overwhelming, her husband would take care of household chores. If they had two overlapping campaign events (they were also involved in Cancel Rent DC and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United), he would attend one while she partook in the other. But Norma acknowledges that it’s possible for them to be so active in the movements because they only have one high school-aged child; she knows other excluded workers can’t take time away from their multiple children even if it’s a fight for their survival. 

For Norma, making room in her life for the heavy lifting that organizing and attending campaign meetings and events required was also about reaching into her academic roots in politics. As a political science and communication sciences student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, she only knew the theory or social movements, and that she wanted to participate. But she didn’t know how—until, many years later, she became involved in movements like the excluded workers campaign in D.C.

According to Norma, addressing councilmembers so they don’t just see a campaigner but listen and recognize your humanity is tougher than it sounds. “They know—they know we’re going through the struggle,” she says. “But you can’t just say, ‘I need this.’ You’ve got to explain it in a way so that they hear you—you’ve got to reach them.” Whether that means repeating yourself or jumping up or finding some other way to draw attention to yourself until they turn around and see you, you’ve got to do whatever it takes, she said. From this mindset, as well as her witnessing caravans in another local protest, an idea was born that became one of the most visible and audible events of their campaign season: show up at councilmembers’ homes with a honk and a bang. 

Hoping Against the Budget 

What are excluded workers’ hopes and plans when thinking about the next budget season? 

The campaign gained three times the amount of funding in the FY 2022 budget compared to last year, which, despite amounting to another small one-time payment, gives workers like Norma hope to push for more during the next budget season. Building a strong coalition identity was vital this year. Getting to know one another helped create interorganizational solidarity that she believes coalition members can build on further: “We are no longer like, ‘Are you from the Domestic Workers Alliance or the DC Street Vendors, or…?’ Now we’re an alliance—regardless of where we come from or the organization with which we were originally associated, we’re one and the same.”

But there’s more work to do in educating the public, Charity says. “I still feel that not enough people know about excluded workers and what they basically face and go through each and every day,” she says. “Right now, you get a sense that people feel like they are going back to some form of normalcy, recovering somehow, economically. That is not the case for excluded workers.” 

While it may also no longer be the case for thousands of other jobless workers in the District who have lost their unemployment benefits, excluded workers have been in a precarious situation from the start. Their lessons in empowerment, social connection, and perseverance are good ones to check out for folks newly facing financially tougher times. As coalition members gather today to plan next steps in their campaign, residents have only to look back at their victories and lessons learned to guess what the future holds. 

—Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Credit: Lateef Mangum

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