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Nonprofit Helps Undocumented Workers Cut Off From Government Aid


A relief fund set up by a nonprofit organization is helping hundreds of undocumented immigrants in western Massachusetts who are not eligible for federal stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

The Pioneer Valley Workers Center said this week it sent more than $85,000 to over 300 people and is taking applications and continuing to fundraise for a second round.WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with Margaret Sawyer, a co-director of the Northampton-based organization.

We created the fund because our organization builds power with workers, all different kinds of workers. But many of our members are undocumented. And also we have a particular concern for workers in vulnerable situations. We knew that many restaurant workers were immediately let go because of COVID. And many farmworkers have also seen that the season has started really slow. So they haven't been able to find work as quickly as they usually can in the spring. And given the federal support for documented workers, and also the access to unemployment payments, we knew these families would really be struggling. So we were able to set up the fund and we've been amazed by the support.

Even though these people pay taxes, because they are undocumented they do not qualify for unemployment benefits or the federal stimulus checks that went out? Is that correct?

That's exactly right. They’re in a very difficult spot.

And obviously they're, most of them are in in low pay occupations?

Almost everyone who applied for support from us works in farm labor or restaurants. We had a few people who are housekeepers who said the work has also stopped. And a few people in landscaping who said the work has stopped due to COVID but they're all pretty vulnerable, low paid industries.

How are they making ends meet?

Um, people have told us different things many are looking for work. There's been some people working on kind of pop-up cleaning crews that have started due to COVID, and some are also working with other area agencies trying to just get by right now. But it's a really, really difficult time. Food distributions are helping. It's a difficult time.

I imagine one of their concerns, obviously would be paying rent, although there's the eviction moratorium that's in place, at least for another few months. We don't know how long it'll be. But I'm sure housing has to be a big concern at this point.

That's right. Housing is a huge concern. And on April 1, we got an enormous spike in phone calls, and again on May 1. We’ve been advising people what their rights are as renters right now. But the rent, the cost of rent is an enormous concern.

So how much money were you able to raise and how many families were you able to help? And this is just the first round, right? You're hoping to do more?

That's right. In the first, we closed the first round on April 22 and we had about $90,000 secured to, to distribute. So with that, we were able to fund 300 families. Most families received $300. Some families who were working 20 hours or more, I think we had 24 families who were working 20 hours or more, they received $150. So today, we've spent 80, almost $88,000. And we're starting round two at the end of this week, and we hope to again distribute checks for at least $300 to at least 200 families. We're checking now to see how much we'll be able to do, but we've been able to raise an additional $60,000 so far. We expect more applications this this time. Last time we had to close the applications when we reached our limit. So we were only open about four days. And we have another 95 people queued up who've already sent them information that they want to be notified when it opens. And many nonprofit groups have also reached out to us to refer people as soon as we open. So we expect will receive probably 500 to 800 applications, this time. We hope to be able to fund those but we need to raise more money to be able to do that. And then we also are imagining that there might be the need for a third round. Given how long the situation seems to be lasting.

And if people are interested in making a donation to the fund, how do they go about that?

That would be wonderful. They go to our website, PVworkerscenter.org and it's the link is right there at the top.

And if someone wants to apply for the assistance, same thing, visit the website?

The website. Yup. And we'll have the second round should be up by the end of the week.

Were you pleased by the response you got in terms of the donations that came in for this?

Oh, yeah, we were. We were astounded, really. We had, let's see, 17 people gave their entire $1,200 stimulus check. And we received 925 donations so far, all together, which contributed $145,000 to the fund. We think people are really understanding that this is a time to see our solidarity and our connectedness and to reach out to each other, not as a form of charity, but absolutely as a form of mutual support. I see you, I support you, and in doing so I'm supporting my community. So we're really proud of that and proud of the solidarity we're seeing.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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