Most people in Oregon who have been laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic have access to state and federal unemployment benefits. But those benefits, as well as the federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act, are all out of reach for Oregon’s undocumented workers.
That's why a group of immigrant and farmworker advocacy groups created the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, or OWRF, back in March, when the pandemic was just starting to take hold. The fund is designed to give undocumented workers who don't qualify for unemployment insurance some temporary financial relief.
So far the fund has garnered nearly $1.5 million in donations from individual donors and philanthropic organizations like the Oregon Community Foundation and the Oregon Food Bank. That also includes a $250,000 donation from the city of Portland. In April, state lawmakers infused the fund with $10 million.
Now some of the leading immigrant advocacy organizations behind the fund say it’s poised for a statewide launch next month.
"So far we have dispersed over $750,000, impacting thousands of families," said PCUN political director and OWRF chair Martha Sonato. "We will be ready to accept applications at full capacity by early June and we expect these funds to be fully deployed in 30 days."
Sonato said the fund started accepting applications in a soft launch on May 8 and distributed its first round of aid last week.
The fund plans to partner with more than 100 community groups across the state to reach the estimated 74,000 undocumented people in Oregon who could benefit from it. Applications will be filled out online with the help of a caseworker. And if an individual is approved, they can receive financial assistance of up to $590 for four weeks via a check or PayPal.
But the money the fund has in its coffers now just scratches at the surface of the total estimated need for laid off undocumented workers and their families.
Ricardo Lujan-Valerio with Latino Network, another group who helped start the fund, said a total of $124 million is needed to assist all the farm laborers and other essential workers who've lost jobs or wages during the pandemic.
“The need is extremely high and although $10 million [from the state] is a meaningful investment to ensure thousands of families can receive temporary relief, it's not enough for what we’re anticipating.”
Lujan-Valerio said his group and other immigrant advocacy groups plan to work closely with the governor’s office when a date for the upcoming Oregon legislative special session is set.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected Oregon's Latino community, mirroring statistics from across the country.
Lujan-Valerio said he wants to make sure his community is not left behind when it comes to aid and he hopes this project will be a catalyst for state and local leaders to address the needs of every community member.
“Our communities often don't qualify for your traditional benefits provided by the government,” said Lujan-Valerio. “These are the folks that will be falling through the cracks and often [they] are the backbones of the businesses that are being hit the hardest right now.”