The COVID-19 pandemic and the related recession had a negative impact on all Americans, with Black and Hispanic workers disproportionately harmed. Excluded workers who were unable to receive any government aid were further devastated by the pandemic. The unemployment rate reached 14.8 percent in April 2020, the highest since 1948, with 10 percent of adults reporting difficulty getting enough to eat, and 1 in 7 renters struggling with rent. Many unemployed workers did receive government aid during the pandemic through Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), as well as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), an additional weekly payment on top of other benefits. Furthermore, many people received federal stimulus payments of $1,200 in April 2020, $600 in December 2020, and $1,400 in March 2021. However, while these programs alleviated the hardship of the pandemic for some, the aid was not available to many others, who were excluded from eligibility and thus were unable to receive unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, or any government assistance.
This group of workers, known officially as “excluded workers,” includes the 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, of which 7 million are part of the workforce. These workers suffered through the hardships of the pandemic as many other Americans did: 74 percent of undocumented immigrants were essential workers, working in fields such as meatpacking and poultry processing, agricultural work, health care, construction, child care, and critical retail. These workers contribute $11.7 billion dollars per year in state and local taxes, the only difference being their lack of work authorization. Furthermore, the excluded worker distinction also includes those in the cash economy, including street vendors and domestic workers, as well as returning citizens (formerly incarcerated individuals who were recently released), all of whom are also ineligible for any government benefits.
Noticing this inequity, many states and local governments, along with philanthropic organizations, have worked to fill the gap for these workers. The following commentary reviews the benefits allocated to these workers during the pandemic in select regions and the issues highlighted by these emergency relief programs. It will then explain how we can learn from these precedents, outlining some potential ways to create permanent aid programs for these workers after the pandemic. Lastly, it will suggest some final takeaways looking towards the future of creating more inclusive aid for individuals impacted by job loss.
An Overview of Excluded Worker Funds
Many organizers, activists, and community nonprofit groups have fought hard for protections for excluded workers, efforts which have taken the form of philanthropic and government funded programs to provide aid to these workers around the country. While the “excluded worker” term is broader than only undocumented immigrants, many of the largest and most effective programs during the pandemic have centered this community.
Tireless and strategic organizing since March 2020 from the Fund Excluded Workers (FEW) Coalition, made up of over 200 organizations across the state, culminated in a twenty-six-day hunger strike from March 16 to April 7, 2021. Due to this, New York State approved the largest fund for excluded workers in the country, the Excluded Workers Fund, at $2.1 billion. This ambitious program will be run by the New York State Department of Labor and is supported by state tax revenue but will be separate from traditional unemployment insurance. Benefits will take the form of a one-time payment for income lost between March 27, 2020 and April 1, 2021, offering two tiers of benefits depending on the amount of documents a worker is able to provide. Tier One, offering up to $15,600 in total benefits, requires a letter from an employer proving work history and the reason they’re no longer employed, at least six weeks of pay stubs or wage statements, a W-2 or 1099 form, a Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA) Wage Notice, or having recently filed a tax return with a Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). An ITIN is a tax processing number available to those ineligible for a Social Security Number (SSN), including undocumented immigrants, foreign nationals, and other individuals, in order for them to pay taxes. Tier Two will offer up to $3,200 for workers who prove residency, identity, and an “alternative proof of work-related eligibility” to be determined by the Department of Labor.
The fund is meant for New Yorkers ineligible for federal relief who have lost wages or income after February 2020 due to unemployment (including partial) or a COVID-related death or disability of a breadwinner. This includes undocumented immigrants but excludes formerly incarcerated individuals. While the fund included $10 million in grants for nonprofits to assist with outreach and helping people apply, the exact accessibility issues the fund may face are still unclear with the application process beginning in August 2021. The greatest concerns relate to the functioning of the on-line application and how state DOL will process proof of eligibility for many applicants who do not have an ITIN number.
In October 2020, Washington State used $40 million in federal funds to create the COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund for workers excluded from federal aid due to their immigration status. As of April 2021, Washington allocated $65 million in funding for another round of assistance. The fund was administered by the Legal Foundation of Washington along with eleven immigrant-led community organizations providing $1,000 direct payments (up to $3,000 per household) mailed as a check, a prepaid Visa card, or ACH (a bank account direct deposit). The application required documentation to prove Washington state residency and identity and could be completed over the phone or online, uploading documents through Submittable, a social impact program platform.
California has also pioneered several important efforts to provide aid to undocumented immigrants. As early as April 2020, the state developed the COVID-19 Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants with $125 million in funding ($75 million in federal funding and $50 million from philanthropic partners) that provided 150,000 prepaid cards of $500 (with a limit of $1,000 per household). To process applications, California relied on twelve nonprofit partners and an Employment Development Department (EDD) call center, which was overwhelmed with more than 1.1 million phone calls on the first day of the program. This led to a frustrating process, with advocates reporting phone lines crashing, issues with not getting through to anyone for an application, and the website going down. Though the assistance provided relief for 150,000 undocumented immigrants, many noted it was not enough with an estimated 270,000 undocumented people having lost work since the beginning of the pandemic.
In March 2021, California approved the Golden State Stimulus plan, a one-time payment meant for low-income residents and undocumented taxpayers. Residents who qualified for CalEITC or filed with an ITIN were eligible for $600 payments while those who met both requirements were eligible for $1200 payments as long as they made $75,000 or less. While the previous assistance only asked individuals to prove they were undocumented, this stimulus required individuals to have filed their taxes with Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITIN). Due to this reliance on ITIN numbers, local organizations had to educate themselves on how to advise people to apply for them, as not all undocumented workers have ITIN numbers. Overall, it created a large barrier to accessing funds. The program suspended or denied the applications of some workers who were unsuccessful in applying for ITINS. The ITIN requirement was often the deciding factor in how easy the application process was and whether or how soon workers would receive the Golden State Stimulus money. Advocates also shed light on the need to allocate more funds for outreach in order to inform people about the resources available to them and how to apply, especially in more rural or underserved areas.
As of July 2021, Califorinia approved a second Golden Stimulus Check of $600 with an additional $500 for undocumented families. There have also been calls for California to authorize funding comparable to the $2 billion provided by the New York Excluded Worker Fund. Composed of various immigrant rights organizations in the state, The Safety Net for All Coalition is advocating for up to $13,032, the average unemployment benefit in the state, in wage replacement for excluded immigrant workers.
In June 2020, Events DC, Washington D.C.’s convention and sports authority, secured $5 million in relief for undocumented workers, referred to as the DC Cares program. The fund was managed through the Community Foundation which worked with community based organizations to issue prepaid debit cards of $1,000 to excluded workers. DC Cares required residents to be excluded from UI or PUA federal benefits and included a large pool of workers: undocumented workers, qualifying returning citizens (recently released from custody), and informal/cash economy workers (day laborers, street vendors, etc). Documents to prove eligibility included release authorization from custody, a DC Limited Purpose ID, or a DOES denial letter for UI or PUA. Residents could also use an ITIN number to apply, but it was not a requirement for the application. The program wasn’t perfect; sometimes the website automatically declined applicants and the D.C. government didn’t help with or allocate funds to assist with outreach or program applications. As of January 2021, Phase Two of DC Cares was announced to provide $8.1 million in funds allocated through a similar process with $1,000 prepaid debit cards.
The primary aid given to Colorado excluded workers took the form of Impact Charitable’s Left Behind Workers Fund, which included undocumented immigrants and other workers (like independent contractors) who were ineligible to receive both UI and stimulus payments. They’ve delivered about $25 million dollars of direct aid (through payments of $1,000) and rental assistance with the funds being acquired through philanthropic efforts with over 300 donors including the cities of Boulder and Denver. The fund works through a collaboration with over thirty trusted nonprofit community based organizations with standing relationships with the undocumented population in Colorado which do outreach to these communities as well as eligibility screening. Individuals proved that they were recently unemployed by providing documents demonstrating previous employment, reference checks through their employer or other employees, or having community organizations attest to their former employment.
|Summary Chart of Excluded Worker Funds
||Excluded Workers Fund
||Tier One: up to $15,600;
Tier Two: up to $3,200
|Estimated 300,000 people eligible
||Covid-19 Immigrant Relief Fund
||$1,000 direct payments (up to $3,000 per household)
||Estimated 250,000 people eligible
||COVID-19 Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants
Golden State Stimulus
|$500 pre-paid cards (a limit of $1,000 per household)
$1,200 or $600 dependent on eligibility
|Estimated 270,000 people eligible (150,000 individuals received assistance)
Estimated 470,000 (undocumented workers with ITINs) eligible
||$1,000 in pre-paid cards
||Estimated 13,400– likely more – people eligible* (13,100 individuals received assistance)
||Left Behind Workers Fund
||$1,000 direct payments
||Estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people eligible
|*Unlike many other funds, Washington DC included undocumented immigrants, returning citizens, sex workers, and workers in the cash economy in their excluded worker fund.
Figure 1 provides a rough estimate comparing the amount of federal aid granted to unemployed citizens from the period of March 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, in order to put in perspective the maximum amount able to be received by excluded workers during the pandemic in certain states. Unemployment insurance amounts were estimated through Department of Labor average weekly benefit data per month for each state.
Leveraging This Current Moment
These temporary aid programs are indicative of the success of fervent organizing and advocacy groups along with more people paying attention to the needs of excluded workers. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the needs of these workers particularly, making it hard to ignore the difficulties they faced in making ends meet and providing for their families. These efforts demonstrate both the need to assist these neglected workers as well as the infrastructures that can be created to provide that aid.
Mark Newhouse, co-founder of the Left Behind Workers Fund, highlighted how the fund facilitated trust building between community based organizations and undocumented immigrants. He reported that in a survey of those who received emergency aid, 94 percent said they were more likely to look for supported services from a community-based organization. These programs allowed these organizations to gain experience doing outreach, screening applications, and working with these communities, creating an asset, as Newhouse said, that can be used in a more long term solution.
Kathy White of Colorado Fiscal Institute emphasized that the Left Behind Workers Fund and others like it taught us that scale is important. She explained “$1,000 is not enough to sustain people in a crisis and it isn’t enough to get the economic bang for a buck that you get with other automatic economic stabilizers like unemployment insurance or food stamps, an injection of money that goes immediately into a family’s pocket, they immediately spend that.”
One time emergency relief is not enough, and a more sustained effort is necessary to prop up the economy and give these excluded workers a safety net, something that can only happen with more investment and a bigger program.
Proposals for a Permanent Income Replacement Program for Excluded Workers
It’s evident that it’s necessary to establish permanent programs for these excluded workers, not just for the next pandemic but to support the livelihoods of them and their families. This permanent program could be modeled as a modified version of unemployment insurance, a Jobseeker’s Allowance, or a disaster relief fund.
Modified Version of Unemployment Insurance
A modified version of UI could send weekly payments to unemployed individuals who would be otherwise eligible for UI but for their lack of work authorization. As traditional state and federal UI payroll taxes cannot be used for this purpose, states could use state revenues to create a separate UI system to serve only these excluded workers.
In Colorado, Senate Bill 233 proposed a program that would serve employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and would otherwise receive UI if not for their immigration status. The employers of these workers already pay into the UI fund though payroll systems, even though their undocumented employees are not able to gain access to these funds. The program would be modeled like UI with weekly payments at a rate of about 55 percent of their wages for a period of thirteen weeks (half of the maximum regular UI duration). The program would be funded by diverting a portion of the UI trust fund surcharge to a Left Behind Workers fund before it goes into the UI trust fund, as Colorado already does for their employment support and training technology fund. This Left Behind Workers fund would be given to a third-party administrator who would be able to administer the program with the help of community based organizations. This setup would not be unprecedented: Colorado’s workforce development services and some family resource programs already have a third-party administer programs on behalf of the state, with the state having oversight for determining the rules.
While the full bill was not passed as it was intended, advocates turned it into a study bill (SB21-233) to determine the feasibility of the program. The Left Behind Workers Fund was allocated $15 million to gather information on the population it would cover and how it would operate to inform the Department of Labor’s report on December 1, 2021.
Advocates have said that the work search requirement poses barriers to receiving benefits, because it can be difficult to meet the requirement’s confusing qualifications.
Still, in part because of the strict requirements of current unemployment insurance programs, there are many obstacles to modeling a comparable program for excluded workers off of UI. A significant design issue is whether and how to implement UI’s work search requirement, which requires unemployed people to record job search activities, like interviewing or applying for positions, in order to receive benefits each week through a weekly redetermination. Advocates have said that the work search requirement poses barriers to receiving benefits, because it can be difficult to meet the requirement’s confusing qualifications. Furthermore, individuals (notably people of color, especially women) often have to take jobs they are underpaid for. While the requirement was relaxed during the pandemic, it will likely be reinstated soon and may complicate an excluded worker program modeled off of UI. If the condition was kept, there are ways to make the qualification easier to meet and beneficial to workers on the job market. One option could be expanding what is considered a job seeking activity to include registering in person with a community based organization or enrolling in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Another option is relaxing or simply eliminating the requirement and weekly recertification and making the physical ability to work the prerequisite for aid. Advocates hope that Colorado’s study bill will shed some light on how to approach the issue.
Furthermore, privacy considerations for the vulnerable information of undocumented workers has the potential to complicate these efforts. This is a concern for workers, who have been provided many reasons to fear ICE, and for businesses wanting to ensure they won’t get into trouble for employing undocumented workers. As described in a recent report by leading advocates recommending expanding coverage to the undocumented, UI benefits will need to be firewalled from immigration enforcement authorities. There is precedent for providing such protections as states enforce wage and hour, and workplace safety laws regardless of immigration status, and unemployment benefits should be treated in a similar way.
However, the stakes for undocumented immigrant (and their employers)’s privacy is higher than most people on unemployment. Given the context of an increase in unemployment insurance fraud in the past year, a program modeled after UI may pose a lot of risk to the undocumented population if not done properly. Some may also be concerned that a benefit for undocumented workers, many of whom use Social Security Numbers that are not theirs, would just open another pathway for fraud.
Advocates say that doing individual face-to-face screening (even virtually), as done by community-based organizations in the Left Behind Workers Fund, would assuage these privacy concerns. The program worked through about 20,000 applications in the past year this way, which demonstrates that the process would work at scale: if the unemployment rate was around 10 percent, that percentage of Colorado’s undocumented population of 100,000 would only mean 10,000 applications would need to be processed.
An overarching issue is that unemployment insurance is struggling to meet its current demands. It’s hard to build off of a program that currently has its own challenges with late payments, barriers to access, or people not receiving benefits. While an amended program has the opportunity to change or take only the good parts of UI, advocates for the undocumented have been wary of building directly off of the UI system.
With the issues present in attempting to expand unemployment insurance, it may make sense to instead create a new program that would include currently excluded workers. The Jobseeker’s Allowance, proposed by the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project, and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, would fill in gaps left by traditional UI for workers. Under this program, those who do not qualify for UI because they don’t have enough work history, their reason for job separation makes them ineligible, or because they have not previously paid into UI would receive a stipend of about $170 per week for up to thirteen weeks (about 50 percent of the wages of a low paid worker). Unlike UI, the proposed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is means-tested, limited to households making under the monthly equivalent of the Social Security taxable wage base ($142,800 for 2021), and not conditional on participants contributing to UI through payroll tax contributions.
Given the clear need for and purpose of the Jobseeker’s Allowance, it would make sense for the program to also serve workers currently excluded by UI for other reasons like work authorization, allowing it to include undocumented immigrants. Further, it could potentially include a more expanded definition of excluded workers similar to the DC Cares program, including cash economy workers or qualifying returning citizens since funds are not dependent on contributions to UI. To meet the means tested income level requirement, eligibility could build on New York’s Fund for Excluded Workers’ application process that required undocumented workers to have earned $26,208 or less between April 19, 2020 and April 19, 2021, proven by earning documents like paystubs.
The proposal also outlines a path of “individualized mobility strategies” for workers facing other barriers to work like homelessness or mental health problems who could receive wraparound services and an individual plan from a program navigator. This could look like allotting funding to partnerships with community based organizations, like in Colorado’s Left Behind Workers Fund, and other relief programs to reach out to undocumented immigrants. The proposal also suggests that the population in this path, who may need more time to find work, could be eligible for an extra thirteen weeks of benefits.
Funding is a significant issue to grapple with when expanding the Jobseeker’s Allowance. The original proposal requested the JSA benefit be federally funded with a 1:1 federal match of state funding for administration, outreach, and other support services as a part of federal government general revenues. Due to the partisan nature of providing aid for undocumented immigrants, seeking federal funding for benefits for these workers may be very difficult. A potential work around would be having the general JSA program federally funded as the report originally proposes but not making work authorization a requirement of the program. Then, states could fund JSA for undocumented immigrants, if they wish, using only state funding potentially along with a portion of the UI budget (as in the modified UI model).
Disaster Relief Funds
A simpler but less stable option is providing a flat amount payment in the case of a disaster or a general economic downturn. This would be similar to California’s Golden State Stimulus being available to low income residents along with undocumented taxpayers. It could look like a stimulus payment for all residents or as a payment designated for excluded workers or undocumented immigrants. This has the advantage of being easier to administer than a program modeled like UI or a Jobseeker’s Allowance as it’s a one time payment.
Unlike the Golden State Stimulus which relied on ITIN numbers which leave out a large portion of undocumented workers and excluded workers, this could look like a permanent fund allocated based on residency and income threshold, in the case of an emergency or recession. Without needing to prove immigration status or the more strict requirements of the other proposed programs, it could be broadly available to anyone under an income level living in a certain state or city. This program would be similar to administration of aid programs in Washington, D.C., Colorado, or Washington state. The Workers Strength Fund, an emergency cash grant pilot for gig workers, also demonstrated how a program like this could be automated allowing funds to be administered between three to four business days in a fairly fast and streamlined way.
For the future of creating permanent aid programs for excluded workers, the following things should be taken into consideration.
The Need to Improve Infrastructure and Fix Unemployment Insurance
Many of the issues facing the rollout of temporary aid programs like California’s COVID-19 Disaster Relief Assistance or DC Cares had to do with the infrastructure regarding the program application, with portals unprepared for the demand or a lack of funding for outreach. Learning from these lessons, permanent programs must include more strategic and adequate funding for program administration. In regards to building on the current UI program, while it received many improvements during the pandemic, increasing aid amounts and PUA to cover those not eligible for UI, which should be continued, it still needs major modernization. This could be done through automating part of the process or prioritizing success metrics over fighting fraud among many other improvements.
Importance of Partnership with Community-Based Organizations
As seen in temporary aid funds, a strong relationship with and trust in the work of community based organizations make it possible to reach populations that are otherwise wary of government aid, a constituency a federal program would never be able to reach alone. These organizations should be partnered with and compensated as they play an indispensable role in outreach to communities and in protecting the vulnerable personal identification information of undocumented immigrants.
Expanding the Definition of Excluded Workers
Undocumented workers are a large part of the excluded worker distinction, and their community is harmed by only considering those who pay taxes with an ITIN number. On top of this, although many efforts center around undocumented workers, there are also many similarly excluded from benefits including cash economy workers and those recently released from incarceration. A focus on one group like undocumented immigrants has the potential to pit working class communities against one another with concern that if these marginalized groups aren’t included now, they will only be pushed out and ignored going forward. When considering future permanent efforts, it’s important to advocate for including these populations in future aid especially as new programs are being imagined now.
It is vital that the issues excluded workers face, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, are not forgotten past this moment of emergency relief programs. Like many other Americans, the safety net that excluded workers require now is also one they need in the future on a permanent basis, giving them and their families the security they deserve.
The author would like to thank those who were interviewed for the context of this report: Rebecca Smith, Teofilo Reyes, Maria Moreno, Sophia Miyoshi, Adam Roseman, Kathy White, and Mark Newhouse as well as Andy Stettner for his support.
Below are a few of the other cities and locations in the United States with efforts to assist excluded workers.
The Workers Defense Project created the Texas Undocu Worker Fund in April 2020 as a form of mutual aid for low-income people and families in Houston, Dallas, and Austin metro areas who will not benefit from federal financial assistance. The fund worked to give $250 to 60 families and households in Texas.
Also in April 2020, Austin, Texas approved a $15 million relief fund with city council members requesting the fund prioritized workers who aren’t able to access federal relief funds. COVID-19 Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) opened applications to qualified social service providers to request funding to provide direct financial relief hoping to target low income residents in need of assistance due to the pandemic who are ineligible for CARES funding in Austin or Travis County. In September 2020, a second fund of $10 million, RISE 2.0, distributed $2,000 increments per household based on a randomized selection process with one of the eligibility requirements being having received less than $1,000 in financial assistance in the past 30 days.
We Are One | Somos Uno Resiliency Fund for Workers and Families, part of a larger resilience fund, allocated $3 million in grants for direct assistance to individuals and families living in Tuscon and South Tucson in August through September 2020. Administered through the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, individuals who experienced financial hardship due to Covid-19 but have not received any other state or federal relief aid could receive a one-time payment of up to $700 and families could receive up to $1,200.