Stairway to limbo / Slogan symposium

The Million-Dollar Staircase in New York's State Capitol, Albany, a turn-of-the-20th-century confection of carved pillars, wreaths and balustrades in red Scottish sandstone
Navya Sriramaneni [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Today: k.e. harloe, a freelance writer based in New York, author of the newsletter media x capital and the column Mediaquake.


Issue No. 95

Trapped On the Million-Dollar Staircase
k.e. harloe


Trapped On the Million-Dollar Staircase

by k.e. harloe

In February, a group of workers gathered in the New York State Capitol building in Albany at the Million Dollar Staircase, 444 skylit steps of beautiful red Scottish sandstone that cost more than a million dollars to build in 1899. Freelance and cash economy workers joined undocumented and formerly incarcerated workers, all fighting for their rightful share of the state’s unemployment safety net. Undocumented workers alone paid $1.4 billion in state unemployment insurance taxes over the past ten years; despite this, they are typically ineligible to receive so much as a penny of unemployment support in return. 

This group in Albany was one part of the Fund Excluded Workers (FEW) Coalition, an alliance that, during the pandemic in 2021, won $2.1 billion for a temporary unemployment fund for excluded workers. By November of that same year, over 100,000 workers had been approved to receive benefits, and the fund had run dry. Since then, the coalition has been fighting to make the fund permanently available.

I joined the gathering at the staircase as part of the freelance media workers’ contingent; we were all in town for what’s known as a “lobby day.” As industry-wide layoffs and closures accelerate, more and more media workers are being pushed to freelance; winning basic worker protections for freelancers, then, is strategic. But the legislation will also appeal to media workers because it would be funded by a tax on tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft—the very companies chiefly responsible for decimating the media industry. Through a 7% tax on these companies’ digital advertising revenues, the fund is expected to raise up to $750 million annually, which would cover an estimated 750,000 workers.  

Should workers be eligible to receive benefits from the system into which they pay taxes? Not a hard question.

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