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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Temporary unemployment relief for undocumented workers in WA now available

(Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS)  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Washington residents who don’t qualify for state unemployment benefits because of their immigration status may be eligible for weekly cash relief through a new program.

This week, two nonprofits launched the Washington Excluded Workers Benefits Fund, a pilot program accepting applications from undocumented workers in the state. Eligible applicants will receive cash payments of $500 per week for 10 weeks or until they find a job. Applications for the program opened this week.

More than 5,200 workers in Washington could benefit from the pilot program or a permanent one like it, according to a 2021 report by the state Employment Security Department. The program was created in the hopes it will pave the way for a state version that provides unemployment relief to undocumented workers, program spokesperson Isaac Organista said in an interview.

The fund was created to provide support and collect data about people who qualify, including their areas of employment and demographic breakdown, Organista said. He added the fund should show elected leaders a model program to follow through “finally passing a permanent solution that is co-designed with workers and community-based organizations that have been working on this policy for years.”

Workers across Washington deserve permanent support from the state, reads a press release about the pilot benefits fund, regardless of their citizenship status. The press release, sent out Tuesday, included a supportive statement from state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.

“From agriculture to the service industry, undocumented workers are the lifeline of our state’s economy,” Saldaña said. “They are our neighbors, friends, and family. They contribute to our communities and pay their share of taxes. I’m glad that, at least in the short term, undocumented workers will be able to access a program that keeps so many other working families afloat. … Next session, we must pass a bill that will expand unemployment benefits for all workers, regardless of status.”

The new pilot program was created by the Washington Dream Coalition and Scholar Fund. It is funded by private donations and was modeled around a similar program in Colorado called the Left Behind Workers Fund.

In an interview, Saldaña said she is considering whether the Colorado program could work in Washington. She acknowledged that initiating a statewide benefits program for undocumented workers is complicated, and that perhaps having a third party run it – the way Colorado does it – might make it more financially plausible.

“Whether it’s in agriculture or hospitality or some of the infrastructure of care like child care and elder care where there are more folks living on the margins,” she said, “to be able to have some smoothing of their income when they lose their job from no fault of their own, it allows them to more quickly find that next job.”

State Rep. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he would vote against expanding state unemployment insurance to include undocumented workers. He expressed concern with the logistics, as well as the cost. He added he would like to see more federal support, including a more flexible H-2A farming system for farmers.

“We have a hemorrhaging unemployment fund,” Schoesler said. “What we really need is a better system for guest workers.”

Earlier this year, a bill that would expand state unemployment to cover undocumented workers never made it out of the legislature. Saldaña said she plans to try again – either with a similar bill or a third-party model.