Excluded workers gathered at Columbia Heights Civic Plaza over the weekend to push for unemployment aid. Credit: Photo courtesy of Francisco Benavides

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Excluded workers are making one final push in their efforts to secure unemployment benefits in the District’s 2023 budget. Workers and activists used local son jarocho tunes and dance, community theater, and testimony to pressure local lawmakers yesterday to approve funds for workers who are excluded from federal pandemic relief and unemployment benefits. 

The DC Excluded Worker Coalition, labor rights groups, local officials, and neighbors gathered at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza in the rain to make their case before the Council votes on the budget on May 10. 

One name got more mentions than any other: Council Chair Phil Mendelson. The chairman has remained noncommittal about allocating funds for excluded workers. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau called it “incredibly disappointing” and tells City Paper it’s now up to the Council and Committee of the Whole to seek funding for D.C. workers not eligible for federal pandemic aid programs and unemployment benefits.

“This rests in the hands of one leader on the Council,” Nadeau told the crowd gathered yesterday. “I don’t mean to call someone out, but this is the way the budget works. Right now everyone needs to be asking Chairman Mendelson to put the money in the budget.” 

Nadeau, who is running for re-election, says she has been urging Mendelson for a month to give the city’s most vulnerable workers funding. She and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George raised the issue during the Council’s budget work session last week. 

The Excluded Worker Coalition has fought their way to meager funds before by demonstrating in front of Mendelson’s house, says Soledad Miranda, a longtime local activist. Coalition members and their allies have waited at the chairman’s house until 1 a.m. some nights and have demonstrated there so often that Mendelson’s neighbors have gotten to know the workers, she tells City Paper.

“If we don’t go to these lengths, we don’t succeed,” Miranda says. “We’ve got to do like babies do. When the baby needs breast milk, it cries and cries and doesn’t care who it disturbs.” 

Miranda’s brother, Raul Lopez, was out of steady work for nearly two years as fellow construction workers got sick with COVID-19. It was impossible to maintain social distancing standards at his construction sites, he explains. Without the aid and unemployment benefits other D.C. residents were receiving, his savings didn’t last throughout the pandemic. While excluded workers contribute to unemployment insurance and other taxes, they don’t qualify for federal aid. 

Sisters Angelica Lopez and Noemi Lopez (no relation to Raul) are urging more people to join the fight.  

“We’re not just asking for ourselves, we’re asking on behalf of everyone,” Angelica Lopez says. 

ANC 2A commissioner Yannik Omictin agrees. “The struggles of the person you pass on the street—you’re closer to that than you [think],” he tells City Paper.  

For Siggy Meilus of the Poor People’s Campaign, the greatest irony lies in the exclusion of the same workers labeled as essential workers early in the pandemic. The city isn’t taking care of the people who feed residents, look after their children and seniors, and take care of them, she says.   

“These types of movements are the things that make improvements in everybody’s workplace, that’s why people need to care about this,” Candace Cunningham of ROC-DC tells City Paper. “The labor movement is what gave people a five-day workweek, paid sick time, a minimum wage … help people take for granted and don’t think about.” 

The hospitality industry—which in large part relies on the labor of excluded workers—is one of the largest employers in the District, her colleague Helena Abraha adds. 

“We put the most money back into the city,” Abraha says. “So why don’t we deserve that money back?”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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  • D.C. residents held a vigil on Saturday for Miguel Gonzalez, an unhoused resident living in Adams Morgan Plaza who died during a temperature drop in April. [NBC4
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