A Fund for Undocumented Workers is Going to Run Dry. What Happens Then?

Immigrants sought advice on applications for the Excluded Workers Fund at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Brooklyn on Sept. 19, 2021. (Photo: Jiahui Huang)

Ana Ramirez and Javier Gloria are friends who used to work at some of the same restaurants in New York City before the pandemic. Ramirez was a barista, Gloria a cook. They’re both undocumented workers. And they both applied last month for grants of more than $15,000 from the state’s Excluded Workers Fund.

The new Fund was included in the state’s $212 billion budget deal in April after a series of protests, including a 23-day-hunger strike, by undocumented workers who had been left out of federal and state pandemic aid. The state began to accept applications for the Fund’s one-time payments on August 1, and received an average of around 3,000 applications a day that month. Following a peak of more than 20,000 applications on Sept. 21, the Department of Labor updated its website on Sept. 27 to warn that the Fund was “nearing exhaustion.” 

In an email sent on Oct. 7 to state legislative offices, the Department of Labor announced that it “will no longer be accepting new applications effective 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 8.” 

Ramirez, 40, was approved for a grant within four weeks, with just one easily fulfilled request for verification. It took Gloria, 50, almost twice as long to get his approval, which he received Sept. 24. He says he had to answer at least 17 text messages and calls from the state Department of Labor — most recently, a request to provide proof of residency, which he answered with a Home Depot receipt from March 2020.

But many applicants are still waiting. Alfredo Gloria, 52, Javier Gloria’s brother, was a barista before the pandemic. He applied when the program opened on Aug. 1. He says that the state contacted him about 15 times, asking for the same documents, such as a New York ID or a proof of his residency via a lease and other papers, but he has yet to hear back.

Alfredo Gloria is getting worried, and thousands of New Yorkers are in the same situation. As of Oct. 8, the state had approved 119,328of the 346,809 applications that had been submitted, and itallocated more than $1.8 billion of the $2.1 billion that’s available. Once the funds run out, it’s not clear what, if any, additional money will be available.

“The money is the only hope I had to [deal with] my precarious situation,” said Alfredo Gloria, who came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. He has worked at various restaurants over the years, and paid taxes, but lost his job during the pandemic. 

The Fund overcame opposition from the state’s Republican Party, ​​which called it an “outlandish development” and said the money would be better spent for veterans, senior citizens, and teachers.

But, Zachary Lerner, an organizing director from New York Communities for Change, thinks Gov. Kathy Hochul should make “sure that we put more money into this to provide that relief for all the excluded workers who have been devastated by this pandemic.”

“This is turning out to be one of the most successful programs in the sense of the number of applicants and how quick they’re approving people and getting the money out,” Lerner said. 

Ron Kim, an Assembly member from Flushing, said that the funding should be extended for two to three years. He describes it as “investment, not as charity” because excluded workers’ “return on investment is tremendous.” After learning that the application window will close on Oct. 8, Kim commented, “The fact that we can’t even meet the demands of a one time funding source is indicative of the government and a state that continues to leave immigrants behind.”

In late September, the Fund Excluded Workers group, a coalition of advocacy groups, held clinics in the Bronx and Brooklyn to help immigrants learn about the fund and apply. More than 500 people came. “We’re trying to put out as many applications as we can,” said Daniela Paez, a navigator from Make the Road New York, a social advocacy group that’s been involved in the campaign.

Applicants must submit proof of residency or employment to meet the Fund’s eligibility requirements. Official documents, like a driver’s license or state-issued ID, help to streamline the process, but people can also submit foreign-issued passports, marriage certificates, utility bills or leases. Those with solid documentation  can qualify for a grant of $15,600, while people with less substantial proof of residency or employment can get grants of $3,200. According to the latest data from the Department of Labor, more than 99% of the applicants received Tier 1 funding. 

Once the application is submitted, the state allows just seven days to correct or submit additional documents. “It’s a very short time that we have to be able to fix any error,” Paez said. If the applicant doesn’t respond in time, the state can close the application — “and there’s no way to reopen it or restart it.”

Advocacy groups helped with the application process on Sept. 19, 2021 (Photo: Jiahui Huang)

Immigrants who are self-employed, or whose bosses pay them in cash, can run into significant problems. Those who don’t have pay stubs need a letter from their employers, and that’s something some bosses won’t do. Leonor Lopez Jimenez, a 59-year-old house cleaner, said her employer, where she has worked for seven years, still hasn’t provided a letter, though she has asked at least 10 times. “If employers don’t want to give them a letter, if they haven’t filed their taxes, it would be tough for them to apply because they cannot prove their work history,” said Bianca Guerrero, a campaign coordinator at Make the Road New York.

A Department of Labor spokesperson said in an email on Sept. 24 that the state has “proactively instituted policies to address the current realities facing low-wage, immigrant workers,” adding that the Department “will continue to work collaboratively to identify solutions to expedite the application process.”

Some immigrants have been reluctant to apply. Anna Chen, an outreach coordinator at the Chinese-American Planning Council, one of the nation’s largest Asian-American social-services organizations, said many members don’t want to apply because they think it could cause problems for their employers, some of whom could be breaking the law by paying workers in cash. Said Paez: “We’re constantly telling them, all the information you give us is just for the application, the [Department of Labor] is not allowed to … send it out to anyone else.”

And, said Guerrero, “There’s just not a lot of awareness about the fund.” Partner organizations in other parts of the state told Guerrero that they have to travel hours to farms just to introduce this fund to agricultural workers. “It could take weeks and weeks of outreach … to even get someone to the point of applying. And we don’t have weeks and weeks of time, because of how fast the money is going out,” Guerrero added.

Of 25 workers in Flushing and Manhattan’s Chinatown contacted in early September, only one delivery worker in Flushing had heard about it, while the other 24 respondents had not. 

Language is another barrier. The Department of Labor provides 13 options on its website. But when officials contact applicants for additional information, the language they use doesn’t always match what the applicants chose. Estee Ward, an attorney at Make the Road New York, said she has Spanish-speaking clients who received notifications in English. “The system has been sporadic in whether they respond to people’s language preferences.”

Sometimes, even those who speak English may find it difficult to communicate with the state because they’re dealing with an automated voice system. Bianca said that some community members could not schedule a callback because the system didn’t recognize their language. And, many applicants lack computer skills or access. “Some of them even don’t have an email address,” Chen said.

The complex application process has also provided opportunities for private agencies to cash in. Anthony Zheng, an air-conditioning technician in Flushing, said he has seen businesses charging a fee of up to $700 to help with an application — up from $100 in August. “It’s all over Flushing.” On the morning of Oct. 7 in Flushing, at least ten employees for six different private businesses offered services to help Chinese immigrants with their applications. One said that their company charges $500, but will refund $400 if the application is denied. 

Ramirez, the restaurant worker who was quickly approved for funding, said the cash has been a lifeline. She was unemployed for a year after the pandemic started, and contracted COVID-19 last January, forcing her to be bedridden for 20 days. “I was so fragile that I didn’t even know if I was gonna die.” She used up her savings to pay for rent and food. She is now working again, but just part-time.

“This money is making me feel a little better as we are recognized as essential,” she said.

The grant is “bittersweet,” she said, since her friend Alfredo Gloria, and others she knows, still haven’t received funding. 

As for Alfredo Gloria, he has a bit of work now, helping a friend paint an apartment. He’s still hoping he’ll get approved. According to the email from the Department of Labor, “those who have already applied can still access their accounts to view their application status or respond to requests for additional documents.”

“His case is so complicated,” Ramirez said. And she makes a vow: “If the Department of Labor won’t approve his application, we will raise funds for him, dollar by dollar.”

About the author(s)

Jiahui Huang is a fellow at Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.