A Crisis Within a Crisis: Undocumented Essential Workers Relied on Charity During the Pandemic
By Andy Damian Correa
This piece was produced by City College of San Francisco Journalism Department and the Democracy and Informed Citizen Emerging Journalist Fellowship initiative of California Humanities.
On a cold evening in San Francisco, Sofia Muñoz leaped off the bus at Van Ness Avenue and Market Street and ran to clock in for the night shift at Crossroad Pizzeria. The 38-year-old quickly disinfected the counter and then posted signs that directed customers to follow COVID-19 health protocols when entering the premises and ordering at the counter.
Muñoz cleaned the floor, arranged the bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola and made sure there was an appetizing view of the pizzas, salads, and desserts on the counter. But there were no walk-in customers or to-go orders. The restaurant was empty.
“At least I have some work, little but enough to pay my rent and food,” Muñoz said.
An essential worker who contracted COVID-19 and made a full recovery, Muñoz is back to work. But the virus caused her setbacks that most others would never have faced. Why? Because she is Guatemalan, living in the U.S. undocumented.
The pandemic exposed the dire reality of the 46,000 undocumented San Francisco residents. Despite making up 5% of the city’s population, they are not eligible for meaningful governmental support.
“There were many challenges and inequities exposed during the pandemic and many challenges for our undocumented residents that will continue during the recovery period,” said Adrienne Pon, executive director of the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs.
In July 2020, the symptoms occurred suddenly in Muñoz.
She simultaneously had a high fever, chills, general pain and sore throat. She immediately got tested at a facility in the Mission neighborhood. The clinicians immediately diagnosed her with COVID-19 and placed her in an isolation room with cardiac monitoring due to her altered blood pressure, pulse and temperature.
The next day, she experienced a dry cough and her skin formed a type of cyst. Days later, she was discharged with a slight fever but no respiratory complications.
“Easy to say it, write it, but to live it? Touched my feelings very intensely,” she said.
Muñoz’s temperature remained elevated and she began to experience shortness of breath, consistent coughs and episodes of diarrhea.
“I couldn’t believe that I had been infected,” she said. “I took great care of myself, but I think I got infected in my work at the restaurant.”
Muñoz was the first in her family of nine to test positive for the virus, followed by her husband a few days later. The couple quarantined inside their room in the College Hill neighborhood. They both struggled to breathe and took four weeks of sick leave without any legal rights to secure an income. Ultimately, Muñoz lost her job.
“I spent all my savings,” she said. “I have no other option. I have to work from what is available, but how else will I survive?”
Muñoz struggled to pay her rent and bills and sought assistance.
She obtained two weekly grocery boxes from a community fridge at the non-profit Mission Fud Hub. The queue for pick up could take four hours, and wrapped around the block.
She applied for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus emergency assistance plan, a program designed to provide disaster assistance payments up to $1,000 dollars per household, but she was never awarded the funds.
“The intense pain in my body and the experience of the coronavirus could have been avoided,” she said, referring to the fact that the federal government could have prevented this health crisis in the country.
A year into the pandemic, Muñoz qualified for the city’s “Right to Recover”, a local assistance program that pays a wage replacement of two weeks, or an eighty-hour equivalent, to any San Francisco worker, regardless of immigration status, and who had contracted COVID-19.
Charities Try To help
Many nonprofit organizations have sought to help as many immigrants as possible. Although California already has aid programs for the undocumented, it is not enough, according to Susana Rojas, executive director of Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.
“It is never enough. Undocumented people are the people who most need support because they do not have access to food stamps, Medi-Cal, or unemployment,” Rojas said.
UndocuFund San Francisco, founded by a coalition of immigrant workers and community organizations, provides direct assistance to undocumented families who live, work or have recently been unemployed in San Francisco. The collective formed after government websites offering aid were overloaded by the demand, proving that the need was high and the help available was minimal or depleted.
Martin Jesus Gutierrez, 48, is another of the more than hundreds of undocumented immigrants in the city who have lost their job, cannot pay their rent and cannot receive any federal, state or city relief.
“I did not get any help from the city,” he said.
For the past five years, he has lived in the heart of the most impoverished San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin, a mere block from City Hall.
Gutierrez left Mexico 20 years ago, and during the pandemic, he survived from his long-earned savings and food donations around the city and meal distributions on Hyde Street.
“I felt that the city did very little for us. I never received any kind of help,” he said.
Gutierrez never contracted the coronavirus, and he received his second Pfizer vaccine last month.
After the city reopened at the orange level for counties with moderate transmission levels, Gutierrez was able to find two full-time jobs, pay his rent, and help his sixteen-year-old daughter, who lives in Cerrito del Norte.
Gutierrez now works from seven in the morning to eleven at night, five days a week. While it may be taxing, he is happy because he can receive an income and support his family in Yucatan, Mexico.
The California Department of Social Services launched the Disaster Assistance Project for Immigrants to provide a one-time payment for eligible undocumented adults for five hundred dollars and a maximum of one thousand per household. Still, the support was only available until June 2020 or whenever funds ran out. Gutierrez did not receive any assistance from this fund.
CDSS-funded nonprofits distributed seventy-five million dollars in disaster relief assistance to approximately one hundred and fifty thousand undocumented adult immigrants in California. Nonprofit organizations began providing these disaster assistance services in May 2020, but it seems the service was not enough for all residents.
Latinos have been affected at steeply higher rates, with 41.1% of infections in the city, as revealed in DataSF.
Alex Cabrera, 32, an essential undocumented worker from Mexico who worked at a restaurant, received his one-time $500 hundred dollar benefit a month after the city shut down. Three months later, he received 1,000 dollars from UndocuFund San Francisco.
“I almost forgot about this help. It took too long,” he said. “The government doesn’t care about how I will survive, but they get my taxes every year.”
Over the summer of 2020, in a survey funded by Workers United, 295 Latinx adults who live and work in the city said they did not have access to any emergency relief funds during the pandemic. It was also revealed that 93.8% of the Latinx adults surveyed were interested in learning more about worker’s rights and that 82.5% of them lost their jobs.
The state of New York offered one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic, while the Golden State cannot do the same and offered payments of $500 on a first-come, first-served basis.
When undocumented immigrants were excluded from federal stimulus checks, San Francisco launched its program to provide financial assistance to undocumented immigrants. To meet the needs of community members, Mayor London Breed announced the launch of Give2SF, a fundraising effort to provide food, shelter, and aid. As San Franciscans struggled to maintain their businesses and stay in their homes, the city offered rental and small business assistance.
San Francisco, the second most expensive city in the country, relies heavily on the tourism, information technology and financial service industries. Despite relying on undocumented workers, the city’s next moves to support them are unclear. They work long hours in restaurants, supermarkets, and building cleaners, risking their lives.
As San Francisco recovers, Muñoz got vaccinated over summer, as advised by the doctor because her immune system remains weak due to the consequences of the virus.
Day by day she feels better and with a positive attitude toward life. She will continue to apply for all the aid available to the undocumented, Muñoz was left without savings and with debts from the last three months of rent. Every Wednesday and Saturday she will continue to collect her basket of free products from non-profit organizations in the Mission.
“Being illegal, it’s hard,” Muñoz said. “It’s tough.”