Undocumented Workers Must Wait on COVID-19 Relief Fund, Will Not Be Eligible for State’s First Public Option Health Program

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State’s undocumented workers waiting for the same kind of economic relief their documented peers receive will have to keep waiting, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office told the Emerald. They also won’t be eligible for the state’s first public option health program, Cascade Care, when it begins next year.

In late May, Inslee said his office was looking into the possibility of creating a novel coronavirus pandemic relief fund for undocumented workers, who are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits or federal economic relief. In an email to the Emerald on July 10, Inslee’s Deputy Communications Director and Press Secretary Mike Faulk said that the reason a fund is taking so long is due to a number of factors, including the complexity of the task and the recent mandate that requires certain staff members to take one furlough day per week, in an effort to cut costs.

Faulk said the governor’s advisors and stakeholders with whom the governor’s office has been working have agreed to hold off on an announcement until the timing is “more certain.” Because of this, he said that giving details about the relief fund would be “jumping ahead.” 

These same undocumented workers — many of whom work in the agricultural industry and other jobs deemed essential — will also be ineligible to receive coverage under the state’s first public option health program, which begins on Jan. 1, 2021. This is because the program, called Cascade Care, “builds on the Washington [Affordable Care Act (ACA)] exchange, which requires documented residency to participate,” a federal requirement of the state’s ACA exchange, Faulk said.

Undocumented workers face unique barriers to healthcare, even under normal circumstances — barriers that have only increased, since the virus’ outbreak in the United States. They also tend to lack basic resources, such as access to transportation, education, and, as previously noted, federal economic aid. As described in the Health Affairs article linked above, undocumented immigrants also fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presence in public and even in private settings, such as clinics. This fear causes them to avoid seeking medical care or leaving the house altogether.

Moreover, undocumented immigrants often belong to the communities that are currently experiencing the worst health outcomes from the pandemic. According to federal data The New York Times obtained, Black and Latino communities are three times as likely to catch the virus, and twice as likely to die from COVID-19, the virus’ associated disease.

In response to the Emerald’s question, regarding what the state is doing to support these more vulnerable communities, Washington State Department of Health spokesperson Jessica Baggett said that the state “is investing nearly $500,000 in community-led, community-rooted organizations that serve Black, Latinx and [I]ndigenous people so they can be the trusted messengers of information.”

“These entities are equipped to use a trauma-informed lens or approach to their interventions so as to not perpetuate further harm, fear, and distrust that may be exacerbated by governmental entities in times of extreme crisis, like a pandemic,” Baggett’s emailed response read. “Additionally, we are developing a statewide campaign that includes Spanish radio public service announcements, social media, and TV spots. We have also previously been working directly with health jurisdictions for targeted Spanish language media buys in Central and Eastern WA, and helping to sponsor other local efforts.”

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured image labelled for reuse from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Flickr.