How did relief funds for immigrants and excluded workers work in California and Chicago, and what lessons can New York learn as it prepares to launch its own aid program?

Courtesy Make the Road New York

Workers and advocates marched across the Manhattan Bridge on March 5 calling for the state budget to include funding for excluded workers.

This article originally appeared in Spanish.

Lea la versión en español aquí

It has been just over two weeks since the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund was approved as part of New York’s State budget deal and the state Department of Labor, charged with running the program and coming up with the application form, has yet to provide answers to basic questions about the initiative—such as when can the process will begin or what will happen if the number of applicants exceeds the estimated 290,000 people the state expects will be eligible.

The Excluded Workers Fund would divide the target population into two groups: the first, known as tier 1, would include those who can demonstrate both New York residency (before March 27, 2020) and lost income due to the pandemic (by showing taxes from previous years; W-2s or 1099s; letters from former employers with dates of employment; or pay stubs). This group could receive up to $15,600 in aid, minus $780 for taxes. The maximum amount is not an arbitrary figure, but is based on the $300 per week in unemployment benefit provided by the government for one year, or 52 weeks—benefits undocumented workers have been unable to access throughout the pandemic.

The second group, or tier 2, would be made up of those who do not have all of these documents handy, but who would still have to prove both their identity and residency in New York State in order to receive a maximum of $3,200, minus $160 for taxes. The maximum amount is the equivalent of the three rounds of federal stimulus payments: the first for $1,200, the second for $600, and the third for $1,400.

How big is the population really?

The question of how many New Yorkers could potentially receive this benefit is important to consider. We asked the state Department of Labor how many applicants they expect, but City Limits did not receive a specific answer.

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), the fund is likely to benefit 290,000 people, a figure that “includes 92,000 we estimate will qualify for Tier 1 benefits and 199,000 for Tier 2 benefits.”

However, New York City alone reported being home to an estimated 560,000 undocumented people in 2018, and 89.9 percent of them were in the 18 to 64 age range. Moreover, since the beginning of the excluded workers campaign, advocacy group Make the Road NY has insisted that there are “500,000 undocumented immigrant workers excluded” from entitlement to unemployment benefits. And the Migration Policy Institute says that there are 866,000 people in the state who are undocumented, 690,000 of them over the age of 25.

When the $2.1 billion was agreed upon for the Excluded Workers Fund in the recent budget deal, the FPI did a calculation based on previous reports and came up with the estimate of 290,000 people who might benefit from it. “We kind of did a backward analysis to say how many do we think that would affect,” says David Dyssegaard Kallick, FPI’s Deputy Director and Director of Immigration Research.

Another factor to consider is tier distribution. The FPI estimates around 68.6 percent of eligible people would not have sufficient documents to apply for tier 1.

However, there has been an outreach campaign to help people prepare and gather the necessary documents since news broke about Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in Albany reaching a budget agreement that included the Excluded Workers Fund. What’s more, hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in New York State work in essential sectors where it is possible to gather the documentation required to enter tier 1.

According to the Center for Migration Studies, there are 74,700 undocumented workers in the state’s restaurant industry, 72,500 in construction, 19,800 in-home health care aides or as aides for the elderly, 19,800 in building cleaning and 18,500 working in transportation infrastructure. That suggests a larger than expected crowd could apply for tier 1 benefits, meaning the fund could potentially be exhausted before all needs are met. FPI had initially proposed a $3.5 billion fund.

California’s experience

Others states’ experiences managing funds for immigrants and excluded workers can be illuminating for New York.

In 2020, California was one of the first states to create a $125 million mixed fund ($75 million coming from the state and $50 million from philanthropic organizations) to aid undocumented workers impacted by the pandemic. When the fund opened in May, information on how to apply was publicized in the media, and 12 organizations were in charge of distributing the funds on a first-come, first-served basis.

California estimated that 150,000 undocumented Californians could benefit from the fund, which provided $500 per person or a maximum of $1,000 per household. In just over a month, between May 18 and June 30, more than 150,000 people applied. So California’s experience can serve as a benchmark for New York’s estimates.

The size of New York State’s Excluded Workers Fund is more than ten times the size of California’s—which at one time was the largest fund to assist the undocumented population nationally—and relief aid is expected to be in high demand.

“Have at top of the mind that this is a population that has been hurting for over a year and, by and large, has not had access to any cash assistance,” said Alexandra Rojas, senior advisor for Tides’ Healthy Democracy Fund, and Daranee Petsod, California Immigrant Resilience Fund (CIRF) Advisor at Tides, in an email. “Both desperation and expectations will be high.”

In California, several media outlets reported that many were unable to register for the state’s relief aid, and an hour after phone lines opened on the first day for applications, the lines crashed. Because of these concerns, both Rojas and Petsod stress the importance of New York investing a lot of time in planning before launching the program.

“On the operations front,” they recommend that New York, “sets up a system––whether phone, website, in-person, application or all of the above––that can handle extremely high volumes.”

Additionally, “Be sure you have enough staffing, particularly in the first few weeks. Make sure your technology is tested in advance and have tech support ready to troubleshoot at every point,” they said in an email.

Another suggestion is for New York to “consider conducting focus groups representing a cross-section of likely beneficiaries to understand documentation-related barriers and how to eliminate them.” The documentation requirements and what the process will be should be clear from the get-go, Rojas and Petsod added.

Rojas and Petsod also suggest New York’s program pay special attention to agricultural workers, a population that is very difficult to reach due to their isolation and their long working hours. “Our biggest lesson was to invest in immigrant-led grassroots groups that have built trust with this population; know how to reach them where they live, work, and worship; and speak their languages (many in California are indigenous and have little or no Spanish, much less English).”

FPI estimates areas home to agricultural workers—such as the lower and mid-Hudson Valley, the Capital Region, and the northern and western regions of New York—only 42,000 people will apply to the fund.

The effort in Chicago

Chicago also created a cash assistance program called the Chicago Resiliency Fund, under which all eligible individuals in Chicago would receive $1,000 per household. This cash assistance came from a partnership between the city, the Resurrection Project and Open Society Foundations, which also supported a pandemic relief program in New York City.

Chicago’s Resurrection Project took on the task of responding to requests, and within five days they had 3,000 applications. In addition to being prepared to expect high demand at the launch of the program, Resurrection Project recommends offering “hybrid approaches,” to the application process. This could mean opening online applications in addition to providing call-in options for immigrants without digital access, as well as incorporating non-profit organizations and community leaders who can work to connect with the hardest-to-reach populations.

Those involved in Chicago’s efforts say there’s an advantage in having New York’s Department of Labor in charge of the state’s relief fund. “The government has more capacity than non-profit organizations and can meet demand at a faster pace,” says Eréndira Rendón, vice president of strategy and immigration defense at Resurrection Project. “The centralized intake and process can be clearer if done through one agency, rather than 20 nonprofits.”

On the downside, though, Rendón points out that the New York program may face a “lack of understanding of the unique obstacles that undocumented immigrants face, [and] availability of languages.”

Rendón recommended that New York accept affidavits as part of its documentation process, since many undocumented workers are paid in cash. And for the application process, she suggested clarifying whether it will be a “per household” or “per person” application. If it is per household, then Rendón recommends “asking for the names and date of birth of all household members to avoid duplicates, but allowing several households living at the same address to apply.”

“We did not do this. I wish we had,” she admits.

She further recommended accepting various forms of proof-of-residency, such as “bills, statements, hospital and doctors’ letters, non-profit letters or church letters.” What is known at the moment is that New York will have a point-based system, so the applicant would need to have four points worth of documentation total (non-expired driver’s licenses, U.S. passports and an IDNYC card would be worth four points; a non-expired non-U.S. passport would give three points; foreign birth certificates, marriage licenses, and high school diplomas would each count one point.)

Another recommendation: “Use text messaging to automatically communicate progress on applications (best investment we made),” Rendón writes about Chicago’s experience.

There might be more lessons in store from other states as New York sets out on its own program. “We are happy to introduce NYS to organizations in California and other states that can offer suggestions on fraud prevention and more,” concludes Rojas and Petsod.