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Alex Mensing, Communications Strategist
One-year anniversary of the community-led program that provides cash assistance to immigrant Oregonians excluded from federal pandemic relief.
STATEWIDE, Ore.–On its one-year anniversary, Oregon Worker Relief announced it has disbursed a total of more than $60 million in pandemic relief to more than 37,000 individuals in Oregon’s immigrant communities. Oregon Worker Relief Fund was launched in 2020 to provide cash assistance to immigrant Oregonians impacted by the pandemic, but excluded from federal relief such as Unemployment Insurance and stimulus payments based on their immigration status.
“Immigrant Oregonians are a vital part of our state, but many were intentionally excluded from federal pandemic relief,” said Isa Peña, interim executive director of Causa Oregon. “Excluding immigrants from desperately-needed relief based on their legal status left Oregon families and communities at severe risk as folks have struggled to pay rent, put food on the table, pay for health care, and keep utilities on during the pandemic.”
Oregon Worker Relief operates through 23 community-based organizations throughout the state, and has been funded through public and private contributions. The community-designed and implemented program manages more than $100 million in pandemic relief through the Relief Fund, a Quarantine Fund to protect agricultural workers from exposure to COVID-19, and a new Small Enterprise Fund for immigrant-run small businesses impacted by the pandemic.
The first cash relief reached immigrant Oregonians on May 19, 2020. The overwhelming majority of applicants have been food industry workers or worked in food processing or farming. Over 80 percent of Oregon Worker Relief applicants have children.
“We heard from so many families who were suffering due to the pandemic and had nowhere to turn for help,” said Coua Xiong, civic engagement manager at APANO. “By working together across organizations in communities statewide, we made sure immigrant Oregonians had some relief.”
The program has distributed aid to Oregonians in 34 of 36 counties statewide, providing a critical influx of cash for Oregon communities, said Martha Sonato, political director at PCUN and president of Oregon Worker Relief. “When workers gain, so do the communities where they live. Shops, grocery stores, gas stations, and local businesses in general will see an uptick in sales. Oregon Worker Relief’s network is critical to Oregon’s recovery efforts because it focuses on immigrant communities statewide.”
Elba Alegria, a legal navigator with Pueblo Unido, said the cash assistance through Oregon Worker Relief was a lifeline for people who had lost their livelihoods, had their hours cut, or had to quarantine due to the pandemic. “I remember meeting a man who was crying because he lost his job due to the pandemic and had no money to pay for food, rent, or bills. He needed $47 to buy medicine for his diabetes and high blood pressure, and he did not have that money. That was heartbreaking. Our organization was able to connect him with resources and helped him with the navigation process for Oregon Worker Relief. After he was approved for OWR, he called me and expressed a lot of gratitude for the help that made a big change in his life.”
An estimated 70,000 workers will seek relief from the Relief Fund. However, more than 85 percent of these workers have experienced hardship in excess of the four weeks of relief provided by the fund, a maximum benefit of $1,720. In contrast, other Oregonians who were unemployed throughout the pandemic year and received the average weekly unemployment insurance benefit would have received more than $35,000 and, if still unemployed through September 2021, would receive more than $50,000 in recovery assistance.
“Our coalition and the many community members who have supported Oregon Worker Relief envision an inclusive Oregon where we respect and care for each other regardless of where we were born,” said Jose Cruz, product manager and designer at Innovation Law Lab. “As the pandemic drags on, we must continue to invest in Oregon workers who continue to be left out of federal unemployment and stimulus programs. The scope of the extreme economic hardship caused by the pandemic and longstanding inequities is vast. The contributions to Oregon Worker Relief during its first year, while significant, are not sufficient to meet the need we face. We call on all levels of government to continue working together to invest in an Oregon that cares for everyone.”
A report with more details on Oregon Worker Relief and policy recommendations for immigrant inclusion is online at https://workerrelief.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/OWR-Narrowing-the-Gap-May-2021.pdf.
The Oregon Worker Relief website and the Alivio Laboral de Oregon Facebook page provide up-to-date information to community members seeking information on the pandemic relief.