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Excluded workers urge Johnson County to direct more pandemic money their way
$2 million isn’t enough, they say
IOWA CITY — The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition again urged the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to significantly increase pandemic relief funds for undocumented workers.
More than 100 immigrant workers rallied ahead of the county’s final public input session on how the federal dollars should be spent, chanting “si se puede” — yes we can — and holding signs with messages “No more stalling,” “We need relief now,”
Johnson County is getting $29.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and has indicated support for $2 million in payments to individuals who were excluded from federal stimulus checks.
But the coalition says that’s not enough. For more than six months, the group has been urging the county and other local governments allocate more money “directly to the people.”
The group is asking for $54 million — an estimate of all federal pandemic relief money going to Johnson County governments — to go to undocumented immigrants, previously incarcerated people and unemployed workers.
Of those funds, the coalition is asking for $20 million in direct cash assistance for up to 6,000 excluded workers. They also want governments to put rescue plan money toward hazard pay for low-wage essential workers and for affordable housing and public transportation.
Ninoska Campos with the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition advocated for these demands during the public input session.
“$2 million is not enough for each excluded worker and family to receive the support they should receive,” Campos said through interpreter Emily Sinnwell. “ … We don’t come with force, but we come to be clear and to ask you to listen. This is time for help, for the people who put their lives at risk during the pandemic. The time is now.”
Katie Biechler, an organizer with the local Service Employees International Union, said the funds need to be distributed directly to the people and can’t have restrictions or paperwork that will deter people from accessing the funds.
Campos and Biechler were among the 20-plus individuals who spoke during the meeting, held at the county’s Health and Human Services Building in Iowa City. Chairs were set up for about 50 people, with others asked to watch the two-hour input session in the hallway, though they were allowed to come into the room to speak.
Supervisor Jon Green motioned for individuals who needed an interpreter to receive 6 minutes during the public comment period.
Report on input
Rose Schroder, a senior urban planner at Bolton & Menk, presented public input collected from county residents between May to October on how people want to see the pandemic funds used.
The county also held six in-person public input sessions, with additional input from an online survey, questionnaires and comment cards.
Six themes emerged, Schroder said, including enhanced and expanded broadband, premium pay for essential workers, direct assistance to households, and helping small businesses.
Respondents also indicated support for investing in affordable housing, child care and food access. Residents indicated they want funding to provide long-term, lasting impact in the county.
David Goodner, co-founder of the Catholic Worker House, criticized the report and how it did not include the words immigrant, excluded worker and stimulus check that have come up throughout the public input process.
“Your report doesn’t even have their voices included in it,” Goodner said.
During a Wednesday morning work session, Johnson County supervisors continued to work through about 60 potential projects — totaling more than $50 million — for the ARPA funds.
Donna Brooks, Johnson County’s grants coordinator, said few local governments have awarded direct aid to residents yet, though St. Louis has.
There are discussions with the county attorney’s office of how to create this program properly without putting undocumented individuals at risk, Brooks said.
Brooks said the attorney’s office is concerned that the county arrived at the $3,200 figure for excluded workers — by adding up the three federal stimulus checks sent to Americans — because the stimulus checks are “considered a stream of payments.”
Brooks said the office is concerned about “putting the people that we provide that money to in jeopardy because it could affect their ability to seek citizenship status in the future,” due to rules from the Trump administration regarding stream of payments to noncitizens.
The board has an ARPA work session scheduled for Nov. 8 and a joint work session with the Iowa City Council on Nov. 16.
A final report from Bolton & Menk is to be presented to the board Nov. 18, when the board could vote to approve some of the first ARPA projects.
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