Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ingrid Vaca feels invisible. She’s worked behind the closed doors of the private homes she cleans across the region for 20 years. Cleaning sometimes turns into caregiving, like when she tended to an elderly client after he injured himself. 

The job itself doesn’t make her feel invisible—cleaning has enabled Vaca, 57, to provide a life for herself and sons in D.C. and send money to her family in Bolivia, where she emigrated from—but the actions of the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowserdo. Lawmakers have so far excluded Vaca and other laid-off workers like her from any coronavirus relief package they’ve passed. 

“They don’t recognize my job,” Vaca says. “They don’t value my humanity. They don’t value everything I did.”  

After D.C. reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 7, Vaca’s clients asked her to stop cleaning their homes because it was too dangerous—traveling to and from locations could possibly spread the virus. Unlike the tens of thousands of workers in the District who’ve been temporarily or permanently laid off during the pandemic, Vaca cannot file for unemployment insurance. Vaca’s two decades of labor are going unnoticed because she is undocumented.   

For a few days, workers like Vaca thought help was on its way. On Thursday, April 2, the Council released its initial draft of the COVID-19 Response Supplemental Emergency Amendment Act, which provided cash assistance to those who are ineligible for local or federal government relief because they aren’t authorized to work in the United States or lack proof of income. These workers are, among other things, caregivers, housecleaners, street vendors, day laborers, and hotel and restaurant workers. On Saturday, April 4, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson circulated a revised draft of the bill that cut wage replacement for excluded workers. The Council ultimately passed legislation that includes no direct aid for these workers during its April 7 meeting. 

“I was very happy,” says Vaca of the original legislation. The cash assistance could have paid for her cable and internet, which were temporarily cut last week because she can’t afford to pay the bill. She depends on internet access to communicate with her 86-year-old mother in Bolivia. 

Workers like Vaca are still without any government help in nearly impossible circumstances. Many of these individuals worked low-paying jobs to begin with and weren’t able to save much. They live paycheck to paycheck and without a job, don’t know how they will pay for their rent or utility bills. Moratoriums on eviction and utility shut-offs are temporary. Desperate for cash, some are still searching for work and putting themselves and others at risk. 

Rusbel Sinto, 49, still waits outside of the Home Depot in Brentwood to see if anyone will hire him for landscaping or construction jobs. Rent was due April 1 and he owes his landlord $1,200. While they haven’t spoken yet, Sinto is waiting for the day when his landlord knocks on his door and wants to collect. Sinto, originally from Guatemala, says he isn’t afraid of getting infected with COVID-19 but of having no money for him and his sons. His last job was 15 days ago. 

“Please help the day laborers,” he says. 

The $1,200 check from the federal stimulus bill would cover a full month of rent, but he doesn’t qualify because of his immigration status. Arturo Griffiths of Trabajadores Unidos de Washington DC, an organization that helps low-wage workers, says day laborers are among the most vulnerable workers because they don’t qualify for any government assistance. Consequently, many day laborers are still looking for work even if that means going into people’s homes without any protective gear. Many of the individuals Griffiths works with live in group homes with six to ten other people. If one becomes infected, it is likely they all will. Some might delay or avoid seeking medical care out of fear of deportation, leaving an outbreak undetected. 

“A lot of them have to work because they don’t have any other way to survive,” says Griffiths. “If that group is not getting taken care of, they could hurt everyone.” 

Workers like Vaca and Sinto are all too familiar with being excluded from the government. Just a few months ago, Vaca advocated to get the Council to pass the Domestic Workers Protection Act because the DC Human Rights Act doesn’t protect workers like her. 

Now, the Council passed its second emergency package related to COVID-19 that provides no direct aid to undocumented and informal economy workers. Mendelson said lawmakers are committed to helping them but couldn’t afford to make it work this time. D.C. must cut $607 million from its budget before the fiscal year ends in September.

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The initial draft of the Council bill gave Bowser two ways to provide cash assistance to excluded workers: one set up a parallel unemployment insurance program and another created a grant program so nonprofits could divvy out cash to workers. No dollar figures were included in the bill, giving the executive plenty of discretion. The chairman, along with the mayor, worked with the Council’s Office of the Budget Director to see how much wage replacement for excluded workers would cost the District. 

Council Budget Director Jennifer Budoffsays setting up a UI program would cost an estimated $33 million if 20 percent of the approximately 19,000 undocumented workers in the city received an average weekly benefit of $300 along with benefits. (This also includes administrative costs affiliated with the Department of Employment Services.) The grant program would cost $42 million because it would cost an additional 30 percent for nonprofits to administer the funds. 

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman is disappointed that the provisions were cut from the relief package. Silverman, who chairs the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, worked with advocates to make sure workers who were excluded from the first COVID-19 relief package were included this time around. Montgomery County was able to set aside $5 million for excluded workers, Silverman says, so why couldn’t D.C.? 

“What Montgomery County did and what our committee wanted to do is signal to this community of workers that we are concerned, we support them, and we want to give what assistance we can,” says Silverman. “We need to help keep all of our families economically as stable as possible at this time.” 

When asked if she believed these workers should receive help comparable to unemployment insurance during a press conference on April 3, Bowser emphasized that “we cannot meet the need for every individual and every business with only District funds.” 

Like its workers, D.C. is in a precarious financial situation because the city is not generating much tax revenue. While the city is in a better position for an economic downturn thanks to years of growth and responsible budgeting, lawmakers still need to cut spending. 

Silverman understands where the mayor is coming from but remains compelled to help this vulnerable group. “We have to remember that these neighbors and residents are excluded from federal sources of money and so the local dollars are really the lifeline that they have and the only safety net they have,” she tells City Paper. “I think that means that we do need to do whatever we can to put some dollars towards helping them out.” 

Mendelson has said he is interested in looking at what Montgomery County did. “There continue to be discussions, I would say fairly energetic discussions, about how we can find relief for these undocumented workers,” Mendelson said during Tuesday’s meeting. Budoff says a microgrant program similar to the Small Business Recovery Microgrants, where the city set aside a defined pool of funding (specifically, $25 million) for a specific group, could be established for excluded workers. It’s unclear whether these ideas will come to fruition. 

When workers learned that the Council cut wage replacement, they and their advocates organized. Using the hashtag #DontExcludeMe, groups like DC Jobs With Justice and Black Lives Matter tagged lawmakers in social media posts that featured workers asking for help. Workers shared videos and photos of themselves in an attempt to change lawmakers’ minds. Hundreds of people contacted the mayor and councilmembers on the behalf of these workers. 

“The truth is that between paying rent and bills, I prefer to eat,” saysJuan in a voice memo recorded in Spanish and posted on Twitter. “That’s the reality.” Originally from Mexico, Juan has worked in D.C. restaurants for the last ten years.

“As a worker in D.C. I pay taxes and yet I can’t receive unemployment benefits,” says Pamela Gomezin a video she recorded of herself in Spanish. The video has more than 500 views on Twitter.   

Nevertheless, the Council unanimously passed its COVID-19 relief package Tuesday afternoon. It includes items like a city-wide rent freeze and 90-day mortgage deferment but no direct relief for excluded workers. In his final remarks before passage, Mendelson acknowledged that everyone is being left disappointed with this bill but called it a “consensus document.” The vote proves to some residents that the city serves select individuals first.   

Excluded workers will have to continue to rely on their community for assistance. A Ward 1 mutual aid group has proved vital to Columbia Heights street vendors, for example. Vendors have been getting cash stipends raised on their behalf. “The state is never going to center the voices who are most harmed,” says Natacia Knapper, who organized the Ward 1 GoFundMe campaign. 

Arely Andrade and her 12-year-old daughter Kimberly have relied on this money and help from the immigrants rights group Many Languages One Voice. All their income came from selling food like tamales in front of the Bank of America near the Columbia Heights Metro station. Community organizers have been dropping off cash and food at Andrade’s doorstep because, as a cancer survivor, she has a compromised immune system. The support has been a silver lining. “I’m happy that me and mom are together and others are helping her,” Kimberly says.

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