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Undocumented Immigrants Launch Businesses With Excluded Workers Fund

New York's Excluded Workers Fund enabled undocumented immigrants to repay debt, help their families, and start their own businesses.

This article was published in partnership with Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism initiative

Jose-Maria, 43, recalls the anxiety crippling onto her whenever her cellphone rang. She knew it would be the same automated message reminding her that her credit cards were overdrafted. She had received similar calls every week since she maxed out her cards in June of 2020, three months after New York City went into lockdown due to the coronavirus.

She took out a debt consolidation loan to pay off her high-interest credit balances. “In the desperate mindset that I was in, I had no choice,” she told Documented. While the constant phone calls were replaced with a monthly payment of $352, Jose-Maria still felt underwater as she had no source of income. And then came the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF). 

The EWF was a $2.1 billion state program that awarded up to $15,600 to New Yorkers who were ineligible for federal pandemic relief and unemployment benefits. During our coverage of the program, Epicenter-NYC and Documented spoke with more than 60 beneficiaries. Their stories tell the impact this historical fund had on the lives of New Yorkers who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and needed the financial boost to maintain their homes, keep their families together, pay medical bills, and start new forms of businesses. 

These are a few of the stories we heard from Documented’s WhatsApp community

How We Covered It: NY’s Excluded Workers Fund is Almost Out of Money

Jose-Maria, who has resided in Brooklyn since she moved from the Dominican Republic ten years ago, suffers from a chronic heart condition that made her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. At the dawn of the pandemic, her doctor recommended to her to avoid crowds and to stay at home. Jose-Maria had to abandon her $450 weekly babysitting job and used her savings to cover the first month of rent, and then she borrowed $2,100 from her friend to cover the costs of the following months. When the money ran out, she started to use her credit cards for necessities like paying her utility bills, and buying food. 

As her balances began to reach its limit, she says the uncertainty of not knowing if she could pay it back made her feel as if she was underwater. 

“It was the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Jose-Maria when she had received the notification that she was approved for the Excluded Workers Fund, which awarded her a one time payment of $14,820 after state taxes. “I had paid my taxes since I started working, so submitting the proof was not a problem, though I know others had trouble with it because of the requirements,” she said. 

The relief of paying off her debts felt like a “weight that leaves your chest and helps you to breathe again,” Jose-Maria recalls. Immediately she paid off the loan, her friend who lent her money, her phone bill which she had fallen behind on, and bought a pair of boots for the winter that was nearing. 

In January of 2022, her mother, Nora Spencer, 84, who was visiting her from Santo Domingo, had to undergo an unexpected emergency surgery which resulted in an amputation of her leg. Jose-Maria had to provide emotional and financial support for three months. They stayed in her apartment in the Bronx. 

“I would not have been able to take care of her if I did not have any money. How could I buy her food, medicine, transportation? This was super helpful and I feel good knowing that I was able to take care of my mother,” she added. Nora is now back in Santo Domingo and is in good health. 

Similarly, when the lockdown started and people were told to stay home, Ana, 36, knew she would be out of work for a long time. She was a domestic worker who switched on and off between being a house cleaner and a masseuse; it would take a while until her clients were finally comfortable enough to let her come into their homes. 

Ana spent over six months without work. Her savings were slowly depleting and she fell behind on four months of rent. When she began working, most of her clients had already moved out of the city, and those that stayed only called her once a month to clean homes that had been untidy for weeks.

Pre-pandemic she would make around $400 a week, and during these months she was lucky if she made $100. “It was very complicated,” she said. “It was very difficult to survive and there was no way to substitute my job because there weren’t any available. And because the demand was high, people were paying very low,” she told Epicenter-NYC.

Ana was a licensed physical therapist in her country of Ecuador. During the pandemic she did an online course of 8 months to further enhance the knowledge and become familiar with the English terminology. Photo: Rommel H. Ojeda for Documented

She came across a notification for the Excluded Workers Fund through Documented’s WhatsApp group. She quickly gathered her documents and submitted her application. “It was a tremendous help,” she said. Like Jose-Maria, she was also approved for the one-time payment of $14,820. Little did she know, this money would help her start her own business. 

With EWF money, Ana paid over $4,000 worth of rent. She used the rest of the money to buy equipment for her massage therapy business that she set up in her home. She bought a massage table, curtains to divide her workspace from her home, and aromatherapy equipment. “These things are very expensive, which is why I never thought about launching a business [on my own],” she said. “Thanks to the money, I was able to.”

The EWF money also came in handy when Hurricane Ida hit. While Ana lives on the first floor, her entire kitchen flooded when her dishwasher began to overflow. She sent multiple photos of the damage to her landlord, but he didn’t help her out and she had to repair her kitchen on her own. 

She had to replace the stove, redo the floors, and fix the wall that had collapsed due to moisture. At the time, she was not aware of the Ida Relief Fund for Excluded New Yorkers, so she was grateful she had money left from the EWF. “The money I received is helping me precisely for this,” she thought. “It came just in time.”

“The money helped many families recover financially. It helped people reach their goals and achieve their dreams,” Ana said. She is looking forward to seeing how her business and clientele grow. “I’m so thankful for everything because it was a big help,” she said.

“I had a collateral on my house in Dominican Republic”

Throughout our conversations with the members of our community, we learned that many of them had borrowed money from family members and friends during the months after they had lost their jobs and depleted their savings. Carolyn, 54, took out a loan from a bank in her native city of Baní by putting her house in the Dominican Republic as collateral.

“I used to clean houses for a living and made around $600 a month. My employers has kids and they were afraid of me being in a crowded train, so they paid for Uber during the first few weeks in March. But then they just couldn’t do it and let me go,” Carolyn said. 

Unable to pay for the rent in her Brooklyn apartment where she had lived for three years since arriving in New York from her country, she went to live with her cousin in a shared two bedroom apartment. She felt embarrassed not being able to help with the rent, utilities, and groceries. “I was going crazy, not knowing where to get money to pitch in for the expenses, so I had to ask someone who I had lent money to in the past to send it to me.” 

Carolyn was constantly looking for work and found a cleaning job at the beginning of March of last year, ten months since she was let go from her full-time cleaning job of three years. By then she had accumulated around $6,000 in debt. A month later, the EWF was announced and in August the applications were open. She applied within days. 

“Every night I used to go to sleep praying to God. I had so many concerns in my mind, so many doubts. I could lose my home that I had used as collateral, so the funds…and me getting approved was like the only light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

She frequented the ATMs everyday to withdraw money from the debit card that was given to her by the EWF program, and she paid all of her debt. Her cousin eventually moved to North Carolina, but having the backing of some of the funds allowed Carolyn to look for her own place in Brooklyn. 

“If the funds did not pass, I would have probably returned to my country.” 

The Excluded Workers Fund was a substitute for state rent relief

Carolyn, Ana and Jose-Maria’s stories are not unique. A report released by Immigration Research Initiative (IRI), a public policy think tank, found that beneficiaries had used their funds to pay accumulated bills, along with other basic necessities. The report states that it also gave the local economy a boost, given that many made purchases within their own communities. 

Non-profit organizations were at the forefront helping their communities fill out their Excluded Workers Fund applications. Emili Prado is a service referral coordinator at La Colmena, a community organization that serves low-wage immigrant workers in Staten Island.

She vividly remembers a daughter who had submitted an application for her sick father, and they thought they had been denied. Prado took a look at their application, appealed it, gathered their missing documents, and successfully submitted it for review. They received a payment of $14,820. Prado later found out that the father had been battling cancer, and he was so thankful because he would be able to pay his medical bills. 

“Many of them were using [the money] for medical expenses,” said Prado. “A lot of them were backed up on rent and electricity bills. A lot of them were trying to pay off their debts.” She also added that many workers were in desperate need of rental assistance, but their landlord wasn’t willing to help them gather documents they needed. 

Jessenia Guapisaca is a community organizer at Churches United for Fair Housing. She helped guide many excluded workers through the EWF application process and helped them gather their documents. Guapisaca serviced stay-at-home moms who had side business or were street vendors who lost income during the pandemic.

Most of the people she helped also qualified for the higher tier of Excluded Worker Fund payments. According to her, most families were able to pay off their debts with the money they received, and since the EWF decision came during the holidays, many families were able to buy Christmas presents for their children. 

Guapisaca says most of the folks who received funds continue to fight for other excluded workers and marched alongside the #Fund Excluded Workers campaign. “It was really gratefulness and being thankful for the funds that made them keep fighting for it day after day,” she said. 

Dayana Carmona with her family. Photo courtesy of Carmona

Dayana Carmona, 43, worked as a nanny until the pandemic hit. Her employer – a doctor– recommended she should stay at home, and kept her on salary for the first few months following the lockdown.

Carmona’s husband lost his job at a theater, and he was unable to sustain a salary due to the instability of the factory jobs he was taking. The pressure built once her employer could not continue to pay her. They borrowed from friends and family in Venezuela, even though they too had been hit hard with the pandemic and the ongoing political crisis. Most of the money went to cover the rent of their apartment. 

“We were under a lot of pressure knowing we owed so much money,” Carmona said, adding that she had to borrow to buy a bike for her husband, who then began delivering food for Instacart. The trips were long without a car and were difficult during the cold days. One rainy day, her husband slipped on his bike and was almost run over by a truck. While he quickly recovered from his fall, he did not want to continue working on a bike. 

The family lined up weekly for food pantries in Brooklyn and looked for community organizations that would provide resources and information. Carmona learned of the EWF via the Cabrini Immigrant Services of NYC. They gave webinars on the documents needed and how to fill out the application. Carmona was one of the first to submit and was approved for $14,820. “I did not expect it. All I could say is God is good,” she said.

The first thing Carmona and her husband did was pay their debts. She then bought her son’s school uniform; he had just begun in-person classes. And they invested the relief money as a down payment for a car as her husband was doing app delivery work full time and the car would make it easier, enable him to deliver at longer distances and helped him feel safer in the job. Carmona also joined him as a delivery driver once her kid went back to school. 

“If we hadn’t received this help, we would still have our debt, my husband would still ride a bicycle during the winter and we would be paying our debts not knowing when they were going to end,” she said.

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