Photo: Peter Gill. Bronx Documentary Center and International Rescue Committee staff help residents apply for the Excluded Workers Fund.

Melrose nonprofit helps undocumented workers apply for pandemic aid

Next application session is scheduled for Sept. 15

The Bronx Documentary Center is working to help undocumented workers in the Bronx apply for new state pandemic aid.

The nonprofit gallery and educational organization held a bilingual information session on Wednesday, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, to provide details about the state Excluded Workers Fund and to assist applicants.

The Excluded Workers Fund is a new initiative by New York State that supports  undocumented immigrants and other workers ineligible for other pandemic-related assistance, such as stimulus checks or unemployment insurance. The $2.1 billion fund began accepting applications on August 1. 

But the application process can be complicated. So Wednesday’s session at the Documentary Center’s space at 614 Courtlandt Ave. in Melrose was to clarify the process, and to help those who are eligible to gather the documents they need and submit them using the New York Department of Labor’s online portal

About a dozen people submitted applications using laptops provided at the help session.

One of the attendees, Gregory, 55, works as a flyer distributor on Bronx sidewalks. Gregory, a native of Mexico who asked that only his first name be used because of his undocumented status, said was hospitalized with COVID-19 in 2020 and has racked up debts that he is struggling to repay.

Jasmine, 40, a street fruit vendor and mother of three, said she learned about the event from an outreach worker.

“I’m very happy to come here,” Jasmine said.  “It’s been a big help.”

The Excluded Workers Fund provides beneficiaries a one-time payment. Applicants must demonstrate their identity, New York State residency, and loss of income during the pandemic

Applicants can submit different types of documents as proof, which are scored using a points system.  “Tier one” applicants, who score higher on the points system, are eligible for $15,600, while “tier two” applicants are eligible for $3,200.

Lawmakers in Albany, led by State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens, created the fund as part of the state budget in April 2021.  The fund was created after city-based activists held a hunger strike to highlight the plight of undocumented workers during the pandemic. 

According to the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, around 507,000 city residents are undocumented immigrants. The poverty rate among New York’s undocumented immigrants is 28.8%, despite high participation by undocumented workers in the workforce.

The fund for undocumented workers is the first of its kind in New York, and one of the first in the nation.  California rolled out a much smaller COVID-19 aid program for undocumented immigrants in 2020. 

The New York fund faced opposition from Republican state lawmakers.  When former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the program into law, he pushed for strict documentation requirements, to address concerns about potential fraud.

Maria Galindo, community engagement coordinator at the Documentary Center, said that proving employment is difficult for workers who are paid in cash and lack formal contracts.  Some undocumented immigrants are afraid to apply, even though their application information will not be shared with the police or immigration authorities.

“What they say is, ‘It’s easier to be invisible,” said Galindo.

Elsewhere in the city, some attorneys are charging people for help submitting application materials to qualify, but there have been reports of scams.

The Bronx Documentary Center will again offer free-of-cost help for applicants next Wednesday, Sept. 15, according to Melissa Donohue, Financial Capabilities Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee’s New York City office.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office announced on Sept. 3 that in its first month, the Excluded Workers Fund had received 90,000 applications and already had released $250 million. The announcement noted that the fund’s website is available in 13 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, and Bengali.  Activists greeted the announcement with cautious optimism, but also called for easing the program’s documentation requirements.

Readers can contact the International Rescue Committee for further details about the fund at ewfircny@rescue.org or at 201-380-4482.

https://www.motthavenherald.com/2017/02/20/0426/ https://motthavenherald.com/2017/10/23/20210408/