On April 8, more than a year after the pandemic started, optimism over the passage of the historic $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund took over the news. The fund offers the much needed financial relief of up to $15,600 to undocumented workers who were previously excluded from federal financial help.
However, as the community eagerly waits for applications to open, gathering the required documentation to prove eligibility is proving to be challenging. The processing times for a valid Tax Identification Number (ITIN) have tripled and IDNYC applications have declined due to a decrease of renewals and strict guidelines, which could delay or prevent people from applying when the application for the Excluded Workers Fund goes live.
Documented runs a community of mainly undocumented immigrants via WhatsApp. Readers, who qualify to receive the financial relief, told us they have been unable to update or get documentation necessary to receive the funds.
María, a 56 year-old Dominican immigrant residing in the Bronx was ecstatic when she heard of the allocated funds for excluded workers. In January of last year she was diagnosed with a type of Lymphoma cancer, and weeks later in mid-February she lost her longtime job as a babysitter. Since the pandemic began, the financial need has become overwhelming. She used her savings to cover food costs, but has been behind on rent since April of last year.
“I am not trying to get the aid to go shopping or to go on vacation. I really need the money to pay for the rent that I owe,” she said.
Along with her sister, Maria-Elena, 48, who lost her job as a house cleaner, they both applied for an ITIN – which is a necessary requirement for receiving the funds. Her sister applied in mid-February of this year, and María applied on March 14th after she filed her taxes for last year. At the time of publishing this article they say that their new ITIN application, which is usually fulfilled by the Internal Revenue System (IRS) in between four to six weeks, is not even in the system.
Like other governmental agencies facing delays, the IRS has a backlog of new tax ID applications. In a press conference held last month in Elmhurst, Queens, New York representatives Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jessica Ramos (D-13) and assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa (D-Northern Manhattan) mentioned that there is a national backlog of 74,000 tax ID applications– with up to 4,000 being from New York.
In order to receive financial assistance, undocumented New Yorkers must have made less than $26,000 in the year 2020 and have lost their income or part of their income as a result of the pandemic. One of the ways to prove their income is by providing the income taxes filed in 2018, 2019 or 2020 using a valid ITIN.
“We need to make sure they can access these programs by expediting the ITIN process,” added Jessica Ramos, NY senator representing District 13 which covers Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and parts of Astoria and Woodside, some of the neighborhoods highly impacted by the coronavirus.
Eligible individuals who did not file taxes can also provide a letter of employment from their employer, which is proving to be just as problematic.
For the past few months journalist Mitra Kalita, along with other volunteers from Epicenter NYC, have helped more than 1,000 immigrant New Yorkers to schedule vaccination appointments. A common problem they encountered was the inability to prove the residency of undocumented New Yorkers. One of the reasons being that employers were afraid of writing letters for their undocumented workers due to fear of getting backlash for employing them in the first place.
If those who are eligible are unable to receive a letter from their employer stating their wages, proving loss of income will be difficult.
Aside from providing evidence for lost income, excluded workers must also submit documentation to prove their identity. María and Maria-Elena both have their IDNYC cards and passports. However, other members of Documented’s WhatsApp community like Carina, a 38-year-old Woodside, Queens resident originally from Mexico, had trouble updating the information on her IDNYC card.
In mid-March of last year, the restaurant where she worked for more than five years in Manhattan closed. Unable to find employment, she dipped into her savings. After seven months of being laid off, the restaurant reopened and hired her again. But her shifts as a hostess are now shorter due to the lack of clientele and tourists.
“Any kind of aid would be helpful, because we lost a lifetime’s worth of savings in just a year,” she said, mentioning the urgency she has to update her address on her IDNYC card, which is enough to prove her identity. Because of the pandemic, enrollment centers for IDNYC and its online services have operated at a limited capacity, requiring in person appointments for new applications and for change of information, a service which was previously offered online.
A spokesperson for IDNYC said that “at the onset of the global public health crisis and NY On PAUSE, IDNYC Enrollment Centers were required to close temporarily,” but it had resumed its services at locations that meet safety requirements. “As the program continues to monitor the health guidance, adjustments may be made to reopen other services online,” they said.
However, between January 1, 2021 and March 31, 2021, IDNYC processed 35,881 applications. This was a 23% decrease from the last quarter, the period between October 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020, in which 47,083 applications were received and processed.
“We experienced a slight decrease in renewals during 1st Quarter 2021. In addition, due to more strict social distancing guidelines. Especially at our Department of Finance sites, we experienced a significant drop in our enrollments,” said the spokesperson. Three weeks after Carina contacted Documented via our WhatsApp channel, she was finally able to schedule an appointment for June.
In the meantime, eligible New Yorkers like María are anxiously waiting for $300 per week from a bill that lacks clarity. Every week, Documented has received questions about the bill. Some users complained that the Excluded Workers Fund did not receive enough coverage in the news when compared to how much exposure stimulus bills received.
Documented contacted the Department of Labor with questions regarding how the funds will be calculated for individuals who reported less than $15,600 the years before the pandemic, but its spokesperson said that new details will be provided in the Excluded Workers Fund page. As of the date of publication, no new information has been released.
While the applications for the fund are still in the works, María says she feels like she’s been waiting for an eternity.
“I have always worked since I was a kid in Santo Domingo. I never asked anyone for anything, I always worked for what I needed. But now, it’s embarrassing for me to say this, I feel inept asking for help.” she said.