Most of New Jersey’s $40 million fund to help immigrants and other residents excluded from COVID-related aid during the pandemic will be re-allocated to other state expenses such as payroll, WNYC/Gothamist has confirmed.
The state had until December 31st to use the federal coronavirus relief money Governor Phil Murphy set aside last year. But only about $6 million was distributed to 2,600 applicants by the federally-imposed deadline, according to the Department of Human Services which oversees the program.
The remaining $34 million was re-appropriated to eligible state expenses such as payroll or other departmental costs incurred during the pandemic, the governor’s office said.
“It's just a slap in the face,” said Lou Kimmel, executive director of New Labor, a worker rights group. “It's something that was set aside for folks … everyone that hasn't gotten any federal or state relief since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The Department of Human Services said last month that it was adding another $10 million in American Rescue Plan money (another federal fund) to allow applications through the end of January.
Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for Murphy, said the governor “remains committed to providing assistance to those who need it and encourages eligible applicants to apply to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund this month.”
State officials say they didn’t receive enough applications to use the $40 million. But immigrant advocates and labor groups say the program set up a convoluted application process without enough community outreach and support.
“New York and Washington state and many other states have been able to give out billions in assistance to very similar populations in just one or two months, in the same timeframe,” said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey.
“It's not like the need has magically evaporated in New Jersey. We know from our conversations with community members, hundreds of thousands of people are still left behind, are still struggling.”
New York lawmakers created a $2.1 billion fund for undocumented workers, offering as much as $15,600 per person. The fund was nearly depleted within two months. In New Jersey, lawmakers failed to move on a bill proposed by State Senator Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, to create a similar program. Instead, Murphy allocated leftover money from the CARES Act last May after a year of protests, rallies and a three-week hunger strike by immigrant advocates. It was a much smaller pot of money than advocates said was needed for the state’s nearly half-a-million undocumented immigrants.
The fund finally opened in late October, initially offering one-time payments of $1,000 to individuals earning less than $55,000 and who were excluded from unemployment benefits or federal stimulus checks. The state later doubled those payments to $2,000 per person and $4,000 per household.
But from the beginning, residents struggled to meet the application’s requirements.
“The whole way it was set up was set up very poorly,” said Amanda Dominguez, an organizer with New Labor, who was hired to review applications but is no longer under contract. She said the amount of documentation required would deter applicants “making it just difficult, putting up more obstacles for people instead of being more helpful.”
All the names on the documents and signatures had to be identical but people from the Latino community often have two last names and two first names, which show up differently on different documents. Applicants also had to prove they lived in New Jersey by submitting a copy of their lease and prove they did not get a federal stimulus check deposited in their bank account — requirements that are much harder to meet in a community that already lives on the margins.
“Let's say you rent a basement apartment and that basement apartment isn't up to code, your landlord is not going to want to write out saying that he illegally rents the basement,” Dominguez said. “And what if you don't have a bank account because you get paid cash?”
She said the system also had technical errors that changed a person’s income from $2,000 to $20,000, making them ineligible.
The Department of Human Services said more than 11,000 applications were submitted and about a quarter, or 2,600, were approved. Another 1,300 are inactive because the applicant withdrew or didn’t follow-up with more information and the rest are under review.
The state spent $900,000 to hire six nonprofits to help sort through applications and “support community outreach efforts.” DHS officials said they also developed webinars, program materials in multiple languages and trainings to put out through local groups.
But local advocates said the state needed to do more outreach itself and not leave it up to cash-strapped nonprofits. Make the Road and 20 other nonprofits sent a letter to Murphy this week urging him to allocate more money to the program and expand outreach.
“The overall size of the program is now only $16 million,” the letter said. “This is far less than the initial allocation in May 2021 and a tiny fraction of the amount required to reach all individuals left behind from federal aid in New Jersey.”
The window to apply remains open through January 31st and applications are available online.