While the Excluded Workers Fund is designed to distribute aid on a first-come, first-served basis, this does not necessarily mean that those who applied first received the funds first, so some are still in limbo.

Courtesy Make the Road New York

Immigrant workers and advocates marched across the Manhattan Bridge ON March 5, 2021, calling for the state budget to include funding for those who have been excluded from pandemic relief.

This article originally appeared in Spanish. Lea la versión en español aquí.

New York’s Excluded Workers Fund has officially closed, and some applicants are still in limbo: because they applied in the last few days when there was no assurance that the applicant would receive the funds, or because they applied early but are in the middle of an appeal, or their documents have been re-reviewed.

Silvia, a 37-year-old woman who asked her last name not to be used, applied in the first weeks of August, just as the fund was opening, but her application was soon denied. She appealed the decision and by Aug. 27, her appeal was also denied.

“Your appeal was denied for the following reason,” read the text message she received at the time. “We are unable to process your application.”

When she managed to reach someone at the NYS Department of Labor (DOL), the government agency in charge of the program, to ask what was going on, the operators told her they couldn’t see what the reason for the denial was, she said.

“I was in the hospital, I lost my job,” Silvia recalled on the phone, recounting her bout with COVID-19 in March of 2020. “I spent a week in the hospital in Flushing. I’m a single mom, so why don’t I qualify?”

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

The Excluded Workers fund was specifically designed to provide financial assistance to New Yorkers who suffered the loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic and who were also excluded from federal assistance programs, such as Silvia.

So she reapplied. On Sept. 11, DOL denied her second application, and this time the text message said that no additional information had been provided in time. Fogged by the anguish of being left out, she went to her accountant, who has done her taxes before, and they filed a third application.

“I sat in her office and when she finished the application she told me, it’s $200,” Silvia said. She knew that many organizations did not charge for the application process—the DOL’s website lists more than 60 community groups across the state charged with helping New Yorkers apply for free—however, Silvia did not want to receive a third denial, so she paid.

She wasn’t alone: As soon as the fund opened the first day of August, ads popped up on social media from tax preparers who charged to fill out applications, Documented NY reported. Silvia says she had even seen signs asking $150 per application as she walked down Roosevelt Avenue and 104th Avenue in Queens, a neighborhood home to many immigrant workers.

“I don’t know,” said Silvia, trying to find more reasons why she had paid. “She gave me hope, maybe this time I will get it.”

Days later, on Sept. 24, the DOL warned on its website that the fund was about to run out and therefore could not guarantee that money would be available to future applicants. And by the evening of Oct. 8, it closed and stopped receiving applications; Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state was on track to distribute more than $2 billion by the end of October.

“Applicants who already submitted a complete application may still access their account to view status or respond to requests for information,” explained DOL.

Still not knowing whether her application would be approved or denied for the third time, Silvia decided to contact City Limits.

The doubt that comes with waiting

Rosa, a 41-year-old woman who asked her last name not to be used, also contacted City Limits because she believed that her case was handled unfairly: she had applied on Aug. 11. She was denied, she appealed, and had not heard anything back since.

“I understand that things take time,” Rosa said over the phone, “but the people I helped apply, my comadre, were approved before me.”

Rosa said she searched for articles about the problems the Excluded Workers Fund applicants were having, but found nothing about the long wait.

“One becomes disillusioned and wonders, why are they doing this?” said Rosa.

Claudia, a 44-year-old woman who also asked her last name not to be used, came to believe it was all a scam because of the time her case was taking, and wanted to warn people by commenting on a City Limits post on social media.

“That [the Excluded Workers Fund] is a falsehood,” she wrote. “I meet all the requirements. On Aug. 2, I submitted my application and the response has always been in process.”

When asked if it was possible for applicants to receive no response to their application after two months, DOL did not give a straight answer, but said it would continue to process applications on a first-come, first-served basis until the fund is exhausted.

As of Wednesday, 130,684 applications had been approved for assistance under the fund—close to $2 billion—out of 350,823 petitions. The total number of petitions includes duplicates, explains Bianca Guerrero, the Fund Excluded Workers campaign coordinator at Make the Road New York, which organized for months to get the state to approve the fund last spring, including a weeks-long hunger strike by some of its members.

City Limits asked the DOL for an estimate of the number of duplicate applications so far, but the agency did not provide a figure, but noted that the vast majority of denials are either duplicates or applications they determined to be invalid.

City Limits also requested the number of petitions denied so far, the number of appeals received, and the number of appeals that resulted in victory, but did not receive an answer.

According to Guerrero, “so far, the number of denials is not a major source of concern.”

Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, which serves as the state’s capital region coordinator for the Excluded Workers Fund, said that of 10 appeals its members have made, only one has been successful.

Courtesy Make the Road NY

Activists celebrating the approval of the fund in April. Many had been on a hunger strike for weeks in demanding the state offer relief funds for undocumented workers excluded from federal aid.

Even rarer is that after an application is denied, the DOL decides to review it again. This is the case for Laura, a 31-year-old woman who asked that her last name not be included.

“Only my husband applied. I didn’t know it could be filed individually,” Laura said by phone.

They applied on Sept. 9 and on Oct. 5, they received a denial. They appealed the decision and on Oct. 8, it came back denied. “We logged in and there was no reason. It didn’t explain. It just reads no,” she says.

On the afternoon of Oct. 14, a DOL representative called to tell them that they were going to reevaluate their application.

The fund’s first-come, first-served basis rule doesn’t necessarily mean that those who applied first were the first to receive the funds, a detail now crucial at the last stage of the program, when early-bird applicants might see later applicants receive aid first. Another applicant, Patricia, for example, says she helped her friends complete their applications. They received the assistance a few weeks later, although she completed her application on Aug. 2.

When asked about these timing issues, the DOL did not provide many details, but said that they will continue to process applications in the order they were received until the fund is exhausted.

On Oct. 12, Claudia received a text message saying that her application had been approved. On Oct. 21, Rosa’s application was approved. As of Nov. 5, neither Laura nor Silvia had received any notification about theirs.