By Sam Bojarski

Some of New York City’s more than 1 million essential workers, in addition to frontline workers throughout the state, could apply for a college scholarship under a bill introduced by Haitian-American state Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus. 

“In our community if you’re talking about essential workers, there are so many I can’t even count them,” said Porez Luxama, executive director of the Life of Hope Center, a community-based nonprofit that facilitates educational and economic opportunities for residents of central Brooklyn, including many immigrants. 

While doctors and nurses have been widely acknowledged as essential front line employees, those who work as social workers and at essential food-service businesses have kept New York’s economy functioning since March. 

“For me, if I’m going to give an award, it’s going to be those people,” Luxama also said. 

Under the Essential New York Scholarship Program introduced by Frontus, health care workers, grocery store employees and other essential workers defined under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order in March could have higher education expenses covered ‒ as long as they have provided an essential service for a defined period of 90 days. The proposed legislation was inspired by the New Deal-era GI Bill. 

Essential workers stock shelves in a Brooklyn grocery store. Photo credit: Sam Bojarski

Frontus, the sponsor of the legislation to create the scholarship, said the idea originated during conversations with legislative staff about ways to offer support during the pandemic. 

“Our essential workers were literally putting their lives on the line and many of them paid the ultimate price,” said Frontus, who represents the 46th Assembly District in south Brooklyn. 

According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s office, more than half of all New York City frontline workers are foreign-born, while 75 percent are people of color. The large number of Haitians working in essential industries has contributed to the devastating toll the pandemic has had on the community, the Haitian Times reported earlier this month. 

Frontus said eligibility for the scholarship is not based on immigration status, but rather on the period of time an essential employee has been working. 

According to a draft of the bill shared with the Haitian Times, the scholarship would cover the cost of tuition at any City University of New York (CUNY) or State University of New York (SUNY) institution, in addition to non-tuition costs of attendance like room and board. Those attending a separate, approved program within the state can earn an award amount equal to tuition charged at a four-year SUNY institution. These students can also earn help paying for non-tuition costs. 

The bill states that individuals shall have performed an essential service for a 90-day period, between March 7, 2020, and the beginning of phase four of reopening in the applicant’s region of residence. Eligible individuals shall have also not been dismissed from their jobs for a cause. 

District 46 Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus.

Frontus told the Haitian Times that the scholarship program “follows the pattern of the GI bill,” which helped advance the economic prospects of millions of veterans who served in World War II by covering educational expenses, among other things. At the time of the GI Bill’s passage, the country was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression. 

Essential workers have borne the brunt of the coronavirus crisis, said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit policy think tank based in New York City. 

“More than half are immigrants, almost a quarter are getting by at less than twice the federal poverty line. So this is a population that has both borne the brunt of the health impacts of the crisis but is also dealing with the economic crisis as well,” he said. 

“To the extent that there’s anything that policymakers are thinking about to make frontline workers whole and to support them through this recovery, that’s absolutely a good thing,” Dvorkin added, in regard to essential workers in New York. 

But Dvorkin also said New York already has a generous Tuition Assistance Program that allows many students to cover tuition costs, particularly at public colleges. To help more low-income families cover non-tuition costs like child care, transportation and food that present a barrier to attending college, he advocated for a broader policy. 

“We need to have a college success fund that pays for non-tuition costs for low-income families, including so many of the cities’ and state’s frontline workers,” Dvorkin added. 

If it becomes law this year, the state-administered Essential New York Scholarship Program proposed by Frontus would take effect in January of 2021, according to the draft of the bill. 

While Frontus could not provide an exact date for when the bill would come up for a vote, she said it has already been submitted to the state assembly’s index. 

“It should appear on the website any day now, and then we’ll be able to bring it up for a vote,” she said in a June 23 interview. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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