116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Board of Supervisors wrestled with questions last week that are being faced by other government officials charged with divvying up millions in federal pandemic relief dollars.
Should part of that money be given to low-income individuals disproportionately affected by the pandemic? If yes, should priority be given to workers excluded from the pandemic stimulus checks that most Americans received in 2020 and 2021?
The Johnson County supervisors late last year settled the first question — yes, $2 million would go to direct assistance for low- and moderate-income residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The $1,400 checks will go to applicants selected at random.
The second question, though, brought disagreement.
Supervisors Jon Green and Rod Sullivan argued unsuccessfully against the “lottery” distribution system, saying the county should prioritize payments to individuals excluded from previous federal stimulus payments, such as undocumented immigrants.
They lost that debate, in a 3-2 board vote Thursday, with Supervisors Royceann Porter, Pat Heiden and Lisa Green-Douglass voting in favor of the random distribution system that supervisors approved in December.
The decision is not what immigrant workers — including members of Escucha Mi Voz and the Iowa City Catholic Worker House — have been advocating for in Johnson, Scott, Muscatine and Louisa counties.
Ninoska Campos, a leader with Escucha Mi Voz, and others argue excluded workers should be given priority in direct assistance payments because they have been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic.
With the current lottery system Johnson County is using, “we would just be excluded once again,” Campos said through an interpreter.
Latino workers are “experiencing greater economic hardship and facing a more challenging future” during the COVID-19 recession, according to an October 2020 report from the Brookings Institution think tank.
The $2 million in direct assistance payments is one of 37 projects Johnson County is funding with the $29.3 million it is receiving in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
On Dec. 8, the supervisors set parameters for who would be eligible for the direct assistance payments, with the main qualifier being income. Applicants can earn no more than $45,370 a year. They must be at least 18 years old and residents of Johnson County since March 1, 2020.
Residents also must demonstrate having experienced a negative economic impact during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as food or housing insecurity, unemployment or exclusion from previous federal stimulus programs. Residents enrolled in federal assistance programs, such as Medicaid and SNAP, also are eligible.
Iowa City has informally agreed to contribute $1.5 million of the city’s pandemic relief dollars to the direct assistance program, likely raising the total to $3.5 million — enough for checks to 2,500 residents. Without the city’s contribution, 1,400 residents would receive payments.
County staffers are now finalizing program materials, including translations into multiple languages, creating application tutorials and scheduling application clinics.
Earlier this month, county Supervisor Green emailed Namrata Mujumdar, lead for policy outreach in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Recovery Programs, asking if the county could give payments to excluded workers. Green’s email is dated Feb. 2, and Mujumdar’s response is dated Feb. 10.
Green asked three questions, including whether the county could limit the direct assistance program to those who had not received previous stimulus payments. The answer was yes.
Mujumdar wrote it was “acceptable and appropriate to limit a cash assistance program to a subset of an eligible population that has been especially impacted by the pandemic, … including prioritizing cash assistance for households that have not already received cash assistance to mitigate the hardship the pandemic has caused.”
The supervisors spent 90 minutes discussing the program at a Wednesday work session, with Sullivan saying, “I don’t think I fully understood every option that was available to us on Dec. 8.”
But Supervisors Porter, Green-Douglass and Heiden had no interest in changing the program. The information in the Treasury’s email to Green was not new information, Green-Douglass, Heiden and county staff said.
Porter said the direct assistance program is not a hazard or premium pay program. Green-Douglass said the board had previously been unanimous in its direction to county staff on how to set up the cash assistance program.
And Heiden said: “I don't think the board should dictate or determine or single out individuals or groups that we think are most negatively impacted. … We have made a determination that we want to build a program that would benefit all those negatively economically impacted by COVID-19.”
Rosalba Gudiel, who works at Mickey’s Irish Pub in downtown Iowa City, said the restaurant closed at the start of the pandemic and she lost her job.
After a few weeks, it reopened for delivery and carryout. She was called back to help with cooking two days a week, but her income was much less than before.
“I felt really frustrated because the rent didn't stop (or) gas for the car,” Gudiel said through an interpreter. “I didn't have any other help.”
Gudiel, who has lived in Iowa City since 2010, believes she’ll be eligible for the direct assistance program, if her name is drawn, but is worried other residents will be excluded because they don’t have the necessary paperwork.
The money, if she’s selected, would be used to pay bills, she said.
“We need that the requirements aren’t so much for the people that have worked in this state,” Gudiel said. “I don’t understand why this state doesn’t help undocumented people who are the workers of this state.”
Gudiel and Campos, with Escucha Mi Voz, both brought up how roofers might not be able to apply. Undocumented workers in roofing or construction typically get paid in cash, and they don’t have a way to show their income, Campos said.
Campos also said other excluded workers have lived in the county for years but their name isn’t on a lease or utility bills.
Manny Galvez, with the Catholic Worker House, said he doesn’t think the county supervisors have listened to individuals who have spoken.
Gudiel said she and others are losing work time to attend meetings to share their stories with elected officials, but, like Galvez, does not feel listened to.
“They are not seeing our faces,” Galvez said. “They are not listening to us as Latinos.”
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