Response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession spurred a wave of policy innovation around the country. Although federal efforts typically carved out undocumented immigrants, many states and localities around the country tried to bring immigrants and others who were excluded back in.
New York’s Excluded Worker Fund (EWF) was the largest of these efforts. The $2.1 billion program allowed 130,000 immigrants without work authorization, and some others who fell between the gaps of federal aid, to get unemployment compensation if they lost work during the pandemic recession.
To better understand the successes and shortcomings of the program, the Urban Institute and Immigration Research Initiative surveyed individuals in the population targeted for aid by this fund.
Why this matters
Findings from this survey are intended to help inform advocacy efforts and future legislation, as New York advocates urge inclusion in the 2023 budget and states and localities across the nation consider the implementation of permanent unemployment benefit programs for excluded workers.
What we found
New York’s EWF showed the possibility to develop state-level programs, at scale, that fill gaps in this country’s safety net, even for people excluded from federal benefits.
The fund provided crucial support to immigrants and their families, helping some of the people who were hit hardest by the pandemic and the recession through a difficult period. People who were not eligible for other aid could access the EWF, which helped people who had lost their jobs to put food on the table, pay the rent, and pay for gas and electric bills.
Key findings include the following:
- EWF recipients used the funds most commonly for rent and food costs, while some recipients also used the money to improve their living situation or make a large purchase (such as a car) that could make a long-term impact on job opportunities and family well-being.
- Receiving the EWF opened new possibilities for job advancement and well-being for recipients, such as investing in their business, obtaining job training, or interviewing for a new job.
- Receiving EWF also was connected to positive civic engagement activities, including filing for an individual taxpayer identification number (also known as ITIN), applying for a local or state government IDs or driver’s licenses, and participating in community empowerment and organizing activities.
- Despite the crucial support provided by the EWF, recipients reported very high rates of material hardship, with even higher rates of hardship reported by nonrecipients.
- Even workers who received the fund indicated that they had overcome some hesitancy in applying because of misinformation about public charge, documentation requirements for the application process, and apprehension that the funds might have to be repaid.
- In addition to barriers to applying for EWF, many recipients faced challenges in using the funds on the cards that were sent to them and grappled with the abundant scams and fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How we did it
We surveyed individuals who would have been eligible for the EWF, regardless of whether they applied for or received the funds. We partnered with 10 community-based organizations across New York State to reach out to constituents that could have qualified for the fund. A total of 408 workers responded to the survey in seven languages, with geographic representation from immigrants in Long Island, New York City, the northern suburbs of New York City, and Upstate New York.