The Excluded Workers Fund was supposed to help immigrants. For many, it is not that easy.



HUDSON – First, his hours at McDonald’s have been reduced to about 20 hours per week.

Then she contracted COVID-19 and had to stop working. Before Sara Reyes knew it, she and her husband were five months behind on their rent, living on paycheck after paycheck to feed their family.

But then Reyes, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, heard about the Excluded Workers Fund. She was excited – well, there was something for them.

The Excluded Worker Fund is a country’s first program passed by the state legislature this year that has allocated $ 2.1 billion in COVID-19 aid to undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for other federal and state benefits. But the roll-out of the program has been fraught with complications and barriers to access for those who need it most.

The challenges were numerous: obtaining the necessary documentation for cashiers, proximity to consulates for document retrieval, access to languages, crooks and, more recently, exhaustion of funds. Community organizers learned on Wednesday that applications submitted after Friday could not be approved because funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

“There has been a huge spike in applications recently, which shows how desperately this fund has been needed by communities for so long,” said Ivy Hest, communications director for the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement (CCSM). “We are very happy that most of the people who applied were able to receive funds, but there are certainly a lot of people who were left behind. “

The state’s Department of Labor did not respond to questions about the depletion of funds and the rejection of future eligible candidates on Friday. However, a note posted on their website on Friday read: “The Fund is currently nearing depletion. While we are always accepting new requests, we cannot guarantee that the funds will be available.”

As of Friday afternoon, of the nearly 237,000 applications submitted, 90,895 had been approved, according to data from the DOL website. While most of these claims were submitted in the upstate, data as of September 14 shows nearly 2,000 have been submitted by counties in the capital region (the majority of Albany County) , with 68 paid claims.

However, most statewide claims were not submitted until last week, seven weeks after applications opened in August, with the record high of 20,538 applications submitted on Monday. The sudden increase, advocates say, is a testament to the sense of urgency caused by the rapidly dwindling funds, but also to the amount of organization and support that needed to be put in place to help undocumented immigrant communities in the region. the application process – which has been a particular challenge for organizations in the upstate.

“New York City especially has a much higher immigrant density, but also organizations and government structures to make the process of getting all your documents easier,” Hest said. “We are late because of this barrier.

Immigration advocates added that while they appreciate the Department of Labor and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration for the swift deployment of funds, with 99.7% of approved applicants receiving the total aid of $ 15,600 , they also knew that $ 2.1 billion would not be enough to meet demand.

However, even without dwindling aid funds, undocumented workers face obstacles in the sole application process.

One challenge that community advocates have seen, particularly in the upstate, is workers paid in cash.

Diana Cruz, Director of Programs and Services at CCSM, recently worked with a young woman to apply for the Excluded Labor Fund. But applicants must prove their income and loss of income, using pay stubs, W-2s or, in the case of cash workers, a letter from their employer. The last time this woman asked her employer for a letter proving her job and salary, she was pregnant and trying to get Medicare – and her boss fired her, Cruz said.

Reyes herself has seen many bosses of community members refuse to give them proof of employment letters, she said through an interpreter.

“If the people applying cannot receive the letter, they should be able to give their boss’s name and the DOL can investigate,” she said. “I think the reason they refuse is that they avoid paying taxes on their employees.”

Providing proof of residency has proven to be another particular challenge for immigrants in the upstate, especially since many of those working on farms have housing provided to them by their employers. Even utility bills are not always an option for applicants as the bills are not always in their name.

“It forced us to be a little more creative,” said Cruz. “We were able to use family court documents for one person, another we used a traffic violation.”

And while vulnerable populations desperately seek financial assistance, crooks take advantage.

Reyes’ daughter got a call from someone earlier this week claiming to be in the labor department and telling her that she would have to deposit $ 600 first before she could get thousands of dollars in relief.

“There are fake websites, fake numbers, and that’s why people have to go to CCSM,” Reyes said.

The challenges workers have so far faced in applying for funds demonstrate that policies requiring proof of employment and residence must be changed as funds continue to flow, said Bianca Guerrero, coordinator of campaign for the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition. She added that lower-state immigrants whose homes were flooded during Hurricane Ida should be accommodated, as many lost the documents they needed during the flash floods.

“This program is the first time something like this has been done in the country,” Guerrero said. “Gov. The Hochul administration has a real chance to make a difference for immigrant workers and make history here. The real test of success is… will it be funded enough to meet the needs? We want to make sure New York gets it right. “

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