Who will receive pandemic financial assistance in Johnson County?

Community organizer Ninoska Campos reads a statement to Mike Hensch, executive director of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, calling for the creation of an excluded worker fund for the distribution of federal pandemic aid. The exchange took place at a Feb. 14 rally hosted by Escucha Mi Voz at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Board of Supervisors wrestled last week with questions facing other government officials responsible for allocating millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief.

Should some of that money be given to low-income people disproportionately affected by the pandemic? If so, should priority be given to workers excluded from the pandemic stimulus checks that most Americans received in 2020 and 2021?

Johnson County supervisors late last year settled the first question — yes, $2 million would go to direct assistance for low- and middle-income residents affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Checks for $1,400 will go to randomly selected applicants.

The second question, however, caused disagreement.

Supervisors Jon Green and Rod Sullivan unsuccessfully objected to the “lottery” distribution system, saying the county should prioritize payments to people left out of previous federal stimulus payments, such as undocumented immigrants.

They lost that debate, in a 3-2 board vote on 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 advocated in Johnson, Scott, Muscatine and Louisa counties.

Protesters gather outside West Liberty City Hall in a February 14 rally organized by Escucha Mi Voz. Other immigrant worker rallies were held in Iowa City and Columbus Junction, aimed at pressuring local governments to provide pandemic relief payments to immigrant workers excluded from previous federal stimulus payments. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Ninoska Campos, a leader of Escucha Mi Voz, and others argue that excluded workers should be prioritized in direct aid payments, as they have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

With the current lottery system Johnson County uses, “we’d be left out again,” Campos said through an interpreter.

According to an October 2020 report by the Brookings Institution think tank, Latino workers are “facing greater economic hardship and facing a tougher future” during the COVID-19 recession.

Organizer Manny Galvez speaks with Johnson County Board of Supervisors Executive Director Mike Hensch during a Feb. 14 rally of excluded workers at the Johnson County Administration Building on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. Escucha Mi Voz held immigrant worker rallies in Iowa City, West Liberty, and Columbus Junction to support immigration reform and pandemic relief payments to immigrant workers excluded from previous stimulus payments. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Who is eligible?

The $2 million in direct assistance payments is one of 37 projects Johnson County is funding with the $29.3 million it receives in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

On December 8, supervisors established parameters for determining who would be eligible for direct assistance payments, the main qualifier being income. Candidates cannot earn more than $45,370 per year. They must be at least 18 years old and have resided in Johnson County since March 1, 2020.

Residents must also demonstrate that they have experienced 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, are also eligible.

Iowa City has informally agreed to contribute $1.5 million of the city’s pandemic relief dollars to the direct assistance program, likely bringing the total to $3.5 million — enough for checks to 2,500 inhabitants. Without the city’s contribution, 1,400 residents would receive payments.

County staff members are currently finalizing program materials, including translations into multiple languages, creating application tutorials, and planning application clinics.

Supervisor email

Earlier this month, County Supervisor Green emailed Namrata Mujumdar, policy outreach manager at the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Recovery Programs, asking if the county could issue payments to excluded workers. Green’s email is dated February 2 and Mujumdar’s response is dated February 10.

Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green

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 that it was “acceptable and appropriate to limit a cash assistance program to a subset of an eligible population that has been particularly affected by the pandemic,…including prioritizing the cash assistance for households that have not yet received cash assistance to ease the hardship the pandemic has caused.”

Supervisors spent 90 minutes discussing the schedule during a Wednesday work session, with Sullivan saying, “I don’t think I fully understood all of the options available to us on December 8.

But supervisors Porter, Green-Douglass and Heiden had no interest in changing the program. The information in the Treasury email to Green was not new, Green-Douglass, Heiden and county staff said.

Porter said the direct assistance program is not a risk or reward program. Green-Douglass said the council had previously been unanimous in its direction to county staff on how to implement the cash assistance program.

And Heiden said, “I don’t think the board should be dictating or determining or isolating which individuals or groups we believe are most negatively impacted. … We decided we wanted to build a program that would benefit everyone who is economically impacted negatively by COVID-19.

Johnson County Supervisor Pat Heiden

Rosalba Gudiel poses for a portrait at her home in Iowa City. She hopes she will be one of those chosen for a pandemic cash assistance payment, but fears others may not have the required documents to apply. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

‘Do not listen’

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 transportation. She was called back to help cook two days a week, but her income was much lower than before.

“I felt really frustrated because the rent didn’t stop (or) the gas for the car,” Gudiel said through an interpreter. “I had no other help.”

Gudiel, who has lived in Iowa City since 2010, believes she will be eligible for the direct assistance program if her name is drawn, but fears other residents could be excluded because they lack the necessary paperwork.

The money, if selected, would be used to pay bills, she said.

“We need the requirements not so much for people who have worked in this state,” Gudiel said. “I don’t understand why this state doesn’t help the undocumented who are the workers of this state.”

Gudiel and Campos, along with Escucha Mi Voz, both spoke about how roofers might not be able to apply. Undocumented roofing or construction workers are usually paid in cash and they have no way to show their earnings, Campos said.

Campos also said other excluded workers had lived in the county for years, but their names were not on a lease or on utility bills.

Workers replace the siding of a house February 23 in Iowa City. Some roofers and construction workers who are paid in cash have been excluded from federal COVID-19 stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Manny Galvez of the Catholic Worker House said he doesn’t think county supervisors listened to those who spoke.

Gudiel said she and others were wasting time from work to attend meetings to share their stories with elected officials, but, like Galvez, did not feel heard.

“They don’t see our faces,” Galvez said. “They don’t listen to us as Latinos.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; [email protected]

Protesters hold signs during a February 14 rally held by Escucha Mi Voz at the Johnson County Administration Building. The group was advocating for direct cash assistance to workers excluded from previous pandemic stimulus payments. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

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