Six months after New Jersey launched a fund for immigrants excluded from other forms of pandemic aid, only about 20% of applicants have received their checks, and thousands more are awaiting approval, state officials said.

The state Department of Human Services, which is overseeing the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund, said $18.1 million has been distributed to about 8,000 applicants. Another 28,000 applications are pending review or missing paperwork, DHS spokeswoman Eva Loayza-McBride said. Four hundred were denied.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration launched the $40 million fund in October using federal coronavirus aid. The program opened after months of rallying and protests by advocacy groups who said immigrant workers had lost jobs and money during the COVID-19 pandemic but were ineligible for federal stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

“The pandemic exacerbated the living conditions of many essential workers. Many people in the community are still paying debts from last year,” said Jenifer Garcia Pelaez, an organizer with New Labor, a nonprofit advocating for low-wage workers. “The process of the excluded workers fund is very difficult. To this day there’s still a large amount of applicants who have not received any funds and have applied since November of last year.”

The pandemic exacerbated the living conditions of many essential workers. Many people in the community are still paying debts from last year.

Jenifer Garcia Pelaez, advocate for low-wage workers

Loayza-McBride said 100 employees, including state staff and workers from five nonprofits, were sorting through the applications. Loayza-McBride said those who applied and still need to submit documents have been contacted at least twice by email, phone or text. Applicants can check their status online.

“We understand that for some individuals gathering these documents may take time if they need to get a letter from a social services or faith-based agency,” she said in an email. “Applications that are missing documents will remain pending to make sure individuals have enough time to gather and submit the documents needed to prove eligibility through the online portal or with the support of community organizations.”

Applicants have to prove they were excluded from federal COVID aid and unemployment benefits, show their income is below $55,000, and provide proof of identity.

More than 35,000 applications were submitted between October and the end of February, when the program closed. But Loayza-McBride said most applications were filed once the state loosened the rules and no longer required applicants to prove they were impacted by COVID-19. Some immigrants don't have bank accounts, which makes it hard to prove they lost income. Others couldn't secure a letter from their employer verifying they had to quarantine or lost work.

Workers initially said applying to the fund was onerous and in the first three months of the program only 11,000 people applied, prompting Murphy to divert $34 million of undistributed money to the state budget, Gothamist first reported. His office said the money had to be used by the end of 2021, according to federal guidelines, or else it would go to waste. After an uproar from immigrant groups, Murphy replenished the fund with another bucket of federal money with looser rules around how it could be used. Those dollars won’t expire until 2024.

Murphy has also said he will add additional funds to ensure anyone who applied by the February deadline and gets approved, receives their $2,000 check.

“We fight hard to win what we deserve, promises are made, but then the delivery? The need is not going to disappear the longer people wait for approval, it’s only going to grow,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “At the beginning of April they said they had 30,000 pending review, and we’re still backlogged at 28,000. At that rate, it would take 14 months to get through a program that was never properly funded or providing adequate relief from the start. It’s unacceptable.”