There are around 300,000 undocumented workers living in New York City, many of whom are essential workers who lost jobs during the pandemic but had no unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks to fall back on. After many months of fighting, protesting and striking, New York City did something no city had done before: it allocated $2.1 billion for excluded workers. This fund would provide a one-time payment to workers who lost income between March 27, 2020 and April 1, 2021, but were excluded from state unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks because of their immigration status. To receive a share of the funds, workers had to fill out an online application to determine if they qualified for payments of up to $15,600. While this fund has been a blessing to many workers, actually applying has proven to be difficult on several fronts. 

Many workers experienced technical difficulties and language barriers and needed help completing their applications. To provide assistance, organizations like Make the Road, The Street Vendor Project and Churches United For Fair Housing came together to host events that helped excluded workers fill out applications with one-on-one help. These events were held throughout New York City and were staffed by volunteers who spoke multiple languages including Spanish, Bengali and Arabic. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado went to one of the events to speak with affected workers about the hurdles they faced when trying to navigate the application process on their own. 

People line up to receive assistance at an Excluded Workers Fund event. Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC.

“When I went online, I saw so many requirements and names of documents that I didn’t even know what they were,” said Marlene Flores, an undocumented worker who lost her job during the pandemic and didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance. For many people like Flores, not being tech savvy was a hurdle she needed help to overcome. 

“I know a little bit of English, and I know how to read and I still couldn’t [submit my application] on my own, a person did it for me. [Submitting the application] doesn’t just require certain documents, but it also requires you to know how to navigate the system, how to take a picture, how to upload the photo, how to scan a paper,” she said. 

Many of the excluded workers are people who can’t afford computers or internet service. Some have had to use their children’s school laptops and iPads if they want to go online. Not being computer literate has held many back from applying. 

Terri Allison was a home health aide who also lost her job during the pandemic. She needs a payment from the fund because she is currently homeless and living in a shelter. She was grateful to have a volunteer to personally help her with her application; she tried to submit it once before, but wasn’t successful.

“I was missing a few documents, but because I’m not a tax person, I didn’t know what the documents were and [I came to this workshop and] someone just helped me,” she said. “I think this is really better because there’s a lot of people that don’t have any understanding because even as intelligent as I am, the paper that they wanted was right in front of my face and I’ve tried like four times.”

Allison hopes to get a response soon; the review process typically takes six to eight weeks. During this time, the fund administrators may request further documentation. 

Brayan Pagoada was one of the volunteers from Churches United for Fair Housing who helped excluded workers fill out applications at an assistance event. He talked about the different technological issues people faced when applying. 

“It is a complicated process and people need help with scanning documents, making letters and templates and different things, and also specifically throughout the beginning of this application,” he said. “People were having problems because they didn’t have to login to go back to the application. If you wanted to go back and finish your application, it would make you create another account which when you send your application, they will deny your application because they will tell you you made two accounts. They kind of fixed it now but it’s working kind of slow.” 

Another issue that has been a hurdle for many excluded workers is language. While the application is available in various languages, some workers have reported receiving notifications regarding their application status in English. If they needed an extra document or to correct something, many workers didn’t do so because they simply couldn’t understand what they were asking. 

Javier Ahuatl. Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC.

Javier Ahuatl was a hospitality worker before the restaurant where he worked was shuttered. He fell behind on rent, and was hoping to get some money from the fund. He, too, relied on help to submit his application. 

“Thank God we had this opportunity to come and apply and receive very, very good attention. There are not enough words to describe the attention of how they have helped the Hispanic population,” he said. 

An Excluded Workers Fund assistance event. Photo by Andrea Pineda-Salgado for Epicenter-NYC.

Ahuatl was amazed with the help he got at one of the application workshops. “I had already tried to fill out my application because I saw on the news that it said that there was a fund for excluded workers. I filled out the application, but I didn’t know where to send the documents and what to do,” he said. “And most of all I don’t understand English very much. But we were given this opportunity and [I am thankful] for those who gave their time so we can fill out those documents.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle these workers have faced is assembling the application itself. Acquiring proof of residency and letters from employers were particularly challenging for many.

“The most difficult thing is that some people have been living here for 20 years, 10 years, five years, two years and they don’t have any bills under their name or any phone bills or anything,” Pagoada said. “But how can we go about the documents? It is heartbreaking to tell people you qualify, but you don’t have the documents necessary to prove, and to apply.”

Patricia Chacon tried to get as many documents as she could to prove her prior employment as a housekeeper but she didn’t have any pay stubs or sufficient documents. Someone in her situation must request a letter from their former employer, and that can be difficult to get. 

“It’s not easy, because sometimes the bosses don’t want to give it, because since you’ve worked without a social security number, they don’t want [the government to know] they hired people without documents,” she said. “It’s not easy to get a work letter.”

She ultimately failed to obtain one.

Some people also had trouble proving where they lived prior to the pandemic. 

“When I lost my job I moved to a place where I pay less, but when I changed my address it became complicated because I had to prove where I was living and I didn’t have any bills, I didn’t have any evidence,” Flores said. “Then I was able to get proof, but it’s really hard when you make that kind of move.”

Even though there have been many hurdles that have discouraged some undocumented workers from applying to the fund, 327,559 people submiitted applications. A majority of them were approved to receive funds. The people we spoke with don’t yet know how much money they will receive — if at all —  since they just recently submitted their applications. 

Excluded workers could qualify for two payment amounts: $15,600 or $3,200. Those who qualify for the former are those who lost their jobs, and that  amount of money is equal to what they would have received if eligible for unemployment insurance this past year. Those who kept their jobs qualify for $3,200, the equivalent of what they would have received from stimulus checks. Unfortunately, only three months after applications opened, the money is running out

Pagoda encourages all excluded workers to apply, and apply now. 

“If you know any undocumented people or any person who was excluded let them know that there is some type of help for them to get financial relief during Covid. It won’t take long, it would take like an hour to do the application,” he said. “I think employers [should] provide for people to take a break from their work half-a-day to apply. Also for them to be able to provide letters that confirm that they are working there. They feel that the Department of Labor is going to investigate them [for hiring undocumented workers]. But that is not the case. They are just reaching out to confirm that that person is an employer and that location.”

According to the Department of Labor, “Documents submitted to the DOL as part of the EWF application, including those from employers, are not public records and will be used for the sole purpose of EWF benefits administration. Disclosure of such to any other government agencies, including U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), is strictly prohibited by law for any purpose other than processing the application, unless expressly authorized by the individual applicant or legally required to do so pursuant to a lawful court order or judicial warrant.”

If you don’t know any excluded workers and are not one yourself, you can also let your legislators know you are happy the excluded workers fund was included in the budget. 

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