Nonprofits team to help undocumented workers left behind in Aspen-area
A Denver-based humanitarian group has provided $1,000 cash payments to 200 workers from Aspen to Parachute who are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis.
Impact Charitable started the Left Behind Workers Fund to help undocumented workers who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced during the pandemic. The workers play an important role in Colorado’s tourism economy but were unable to collect unemployment benefits or the $1,200 payments issued through the federal CARE Act because of their status, said Mark Newhouse, a co-founder of the Left Behind Workers Fund.
He wanted to fill that vacuum and assist struggling undocumented workers.
“It’s hard to imagine how we would run our tourism and outdoor recreation (economy) without them,” he said.
The Left Behind Workers Fund aids people throughout the state and has distributed about $3.5 million as of Wednesday, Newhouse said. In the Roaring Fork Valley region, it worked with the LaMedichi, a program under the umbrella of the Carbondale nonprofit organization Manaus, to select recipients between Aspen and Parachute.
Barbara Freeman, the creator and team leader of LaMedichi, said many workers remain in a dire situation in the region despite the best efforts of nonprofit organizations and some local governments to provide aid.
Even in typical times, their lives are often filled with uncertainty over how many hours they will be able to work because of the seasonal nature of the economy.
“Their jobs are even more unstable than they were before,” Freeman said.
Many undocumented workers are in the hospitality industry, such as housekeepers at hotels, and in restaurants and construction. Some haven’t been called back to work. Others have limited hours.
“Even though they are back at work, it’s going to be choppy,” Freeman said.
Manaus was among several nonprofit organizations that stepped up to provide aid early in the pandemic. Before the coronavirus, the LaMedichi Savings-Credit Club worked with clients to educate them on the wisdom of starting a savings account and establishing good credit ratings. It pivoted to providing aid after the economy tanked when the ski industry shut down in mid-March and stay-at-home orders affected nearly every business.
“We were able to launch the Manaus Emergency Fund very quickly,” Freeman said.
Manaus raised $1.2 million and distributed $1,000 grants to families. It worked with partners such as Valley Settlement, Aspen Family Connection and English in Action to identify some of the families most in need of aid. Families received $950 to spend in any way they wanted. Another $50 went into savings accounts and workers discussed the importance of a savings plan.
LaMedichi was enlisted by Impact Charitable to identify people in the Roaring Fork region who need help through the Workers Left Behind Fund. Freeman said that effort was led by Latinos and Latinas who work as ambassadors with LaMedichi. It wasn’t difficult to find families that needed assistance.
“I feel the struggle is even greater than it was before,” Freeman said. “The need is great but it’s changed in nature.”
At first, the most pressing need was helping families pay their rent. Now, medical expenses related to COVID-19 have emerged as an equal burden for many families and individuals.
“We are dealing with the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Freeman said.
Newhouse said undocumented workers comprise an estimated 5% of the statewide workforce. The concentration is higher in resort areas such as the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimated Colorado’s undocumented workers have contributed $208 million to the state’s unemployment insurance system since the Great Recession ended nearly a decade ago. Those workers are seeing the greatest unemployment rates yet receiving zero dollars in benefits.
Newhouse’s goals are broader than providing financial assistance. Impact Charitable is urging greater public support from the state, county and municipal governments to aid the undocumented community. Another goal is to change the law so undocumented workers are eligible for “unemployment insurance equity,” Newhouse said. “It would likely require a different administration at the national level.”
When asked what he says to critics who contend people in the country illegally shouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits, Newhouse stressed their importance to the economy.
About $5.1 million has been raised for the Workers Left Behind Fund and $3.5 million dispersed. The remaining funds will be exhausted by August, according to Newhouse.
With no end in sight to the pandemic and the related economic uncertainty, he will continue to raise funds. More on the Workers Left Behind program and a link where donations can be made can be found at https://www.impactcharitable.org/workers-fund.
“The need remains dramatic,” Newhouse said.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.