ITHACA, N.Y.—At a press conference on Feb. 14, advocates and community members and leaders voiced support for an Unemployment Bridge Program within the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier.
The program on the table would ensure permanent access to financial assistance for vulnerable workers, namely self-employed freelancers/entrepreneurs, cash workers in domestic labor fields, undocumented immigrants and individuals rejoining society following incarceration.
Speaking on a panel at the event, which took place at the Plumbers & Pipefitters Building at 701 West State Street, were Gabriella Carr with the Tompkins County Workers Center (TCWC), City of Ithaca Common Councilmember Phoebe Brown, Ian Greer, senior researcher at Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School; Keegan Young, Ultimate ReEntry Opportunity and Cornell Prison Education Program; Carlos Gutierrez, Midstate Council for Occupational Safety and Health; and Lucy Williams, an immigrant workers.
“This is a program that would be a secondary unemployment benefit system separate from traditional unemployment insurance,” Carr said. “This would be for people who are exclusively barred from access from unemployment insurance benefits.”
The program would impact 750,000 in New York State, Carr said.
“Our mission is to empower […] humans returning to our communities from prison, also those who have loved ones incarcerated,” Brown said. “It will help lessen the traumatic experience of returning to our communities. This is a step in the right direction, and it is one of many.”
Carr said that the program would waive the work requirements and wage history. Anyone incarcerated at least one year would be eligible to apply for the program as soon as they were released. Once released and enrolled in the program, Carr said that individuals would receive $1,200 a month for six months.
Young, from Syracuse, said that when he was released from prison in March 2022, he was forced to come to Tompkins County. “I was living out of a backpack, […] I had been living at a halfway house setting since my release. I was not safe or comfortable, I had trouble finding steady employment and was dealing with anxiety and depression being around regular people again.”
Though he earned a bachelor’s degree during his incarceration, he said that he struggled to find employment until October 2022.
“If I’d had unemployment support, I could have taken my time to adjust and rejoin society and wouldn’t have had to rush to find a job and be worried about paying rent and my other debts,” Young said. “It would have been a better shot at actually getting on my feet and rejoining society. I know I’m not the only person who has gone through these struggles or is going through these struggles.”
Greer said that the problem with unemployment insurance doesn’t cover most workers, and that the insurance has many restrictions, including providing previous wage and employment status, among other things.
“You have to be actively looking for work and available for work so that excludes people,” Greer said. “Undocumented workers are, considered under law, not available for work.”
Additionally, Greer said that this program would include a large portion of the previously excluded working population.
Gutierrez said that when he first came to the United States with papers to work, he experienced employers not paying him overtime he was due.
Working with dairy farmers, Gutierrez said that farm workers’ experiences are a crucial part of national economy, and the people “who make New York State look good with all this variety of milk products and yogurts and so on. They pay taxes, too, they get deducted social security even though they don’t have social security that counts, they pay for Medicare.”
With this program in place, these workers would have an opportunity to face their employers through the system to make sure their conditions remain fair. “They’ll also have the opportunity to face the employer at a hearing,” Gutierrez said.
“I believe this program would benefit many immigrants who otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment because of their immigration status,” Williams said, adding that she’s seen people forced out of their homes while fighting for wage increases.
The program would cost New York State $500 million to allow the program to run alongside typical unemployment insurance. The press conference comes as New York’s annual state budget tug-of-war is primed to unfold over the next several weeks.
Carr said that the program would be paid for by another new legislation in support of digital ad sales tax, primarily impacting large tech corporations like Google and Amazon. “Digital ad space in New York State is currently untaxed, so this is up to a billion dollars in taxes that is untapped,” she said.