New fund seeks to catch immigrant workers who’ve fallen through the safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic

A sign directs patients at Salud Medical Center in Woodburn on Wednesday, April 29. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A new program intended to help immigrant workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic who don’t qualify for employment safety net programs has distributed $750,000 in initial payments. But as it prepares for its statewide launch, the fund faces challenges in reaching all workers who need help.

In April, the Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board allocated $10 million to help create the Oregon Worker Relief Fund. The fund is aimed at providing financial support for undocumented workers who’ve lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced but aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance or federal stimulus payments because of their legal status.

Groups like the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a left-leaning think tank, have pointed out that many undocumented workers pay taxes that support public services that they remain ineligible for. For instance, the center estimates that there are 18,000 undocumented immigrants in Marion County who annually pay $14 million in state and local taxes.

“This pandemic has devastated the lives of many low wage employees, including many immigrant Oregonians and exposed the structural inequities in our society,” Adriana Miranda, executive director of immigrant rights group CAUSA Oregon, during a press call on Friday.

Citing research from the Oregon Center for Public Policy, she said that around 86,000 Oregon children, one in 10, live with a family member lacking legal status. Of these children, 83% are U.S. citizens, she said.

Miranda estimated that the fund will need to serve about 74,000 immigrant workers ineligible for unemployment insurance. However, despite the funding from the Legislature’s emergency board, she said that the fund will need $124 million a month to meet the need. The fund has raised an additional $1.35 million from philanthropy, individuals and local governments, she said.

The fund is intended for workers in Oregon who are at least 18 years of age, have lost wages because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are ineligible for federal safety net programs. The payments are capped at $590 a week.

Martha Sonato, the political director for the farmworkers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, said that the fund will be rolled out in phases. She said the initial phase was launched earlier this month to test the fund’s ability to deliver payments and worked with CAUSA, the Latino Network, The Next Door in Hood River and the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council in Astoria.

The initial phase was intended to catch any glitches in the software, developed by legal nonprofit Innovation Law Lab, used to process applications or the system to deliver payments, said Sonato.

For the full launch, she said that the fund will work with 20 community organizations across the state to help workers navigate the application process and overcome technical barriers, such as a lack of internet service.

She said that the initial funds have helped thousands of families. In June, the fund will have its statewide launch and will help 6,000 to 10,000 recipients, she said. 

“Our workers feel seen for the first time in a long, long time,” she said.

Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, director of advocacy for the Latino Network, said that the average amount awarded to recipients has been $1,200 to $1,720 per individual. He said those eligible can qualify once for four weeks’ worth of payments. With the COVID-19 pandemic expected to have a multi-year impact, he said that there are plans to expand the fund.

“I think the biggest thing that we continue to have on our minds is that the influx is going to be extremely high because the need is going to be extremely high statewide,” he said.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.