The Murphy administration has replenished the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund to the amount of $40 million and extended its deadline to the end of February following backlash after it diverted $34 million of unused money from the fund for state expenses.
The state’s excluded workers expressed outrage last week when news broke that the majority of unused money from the fund had been re-allocated to pay internal expenses and payroll.
Workers, mostly undocumented residents, and their advocates welcomed the news of the fund restoration, deadline extension and simplification of the application process.
Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement on WNYC on Friday. It was followed by a statement with details from the Department of Human Services, which administers the program.
“By continuing to fund the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund and simplifying the application process, we are making sure more families who are eligible for this program receive much-awaited assistance,” Murphy said in a statement.
Applicants will no longer have to prove COVID-related impact, which advocates have said was one of the main obstacles to getting applications approved. But they will still need to demonstrate exclusion from federal COVID relief.
The fund was launched in late October to provide much-needed pandemic relief to low-income essential and front-line workers who did not receive any aid from the three main packages of federal relief the government issued since the pandemic hit in March 2020.
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The newly announced $40 million comes from American Rescue Plan funds and will be administered in a series of “programmatic phases,” the governor’s office said. What that means is it will be issued in increments of $10 million and the Department of Human Services would have to reapply for each increment. Rules laid out in the budget prevent Murphy from using more than $10 million at a time without gaining approval from the Legislature.
The state is going to invest in outreach, and is considering inviting applications from local organizations to promote the fund and spread the word about its availability, said Diana Mejia, an advocate at labor and immigrant advocacy group Wind of the Spirit, one of six organizations hired by the state when the program launched in late October to assist in applying for aid.
Advocates have criticized the state for not publicizing the fund enough, in addition to creating a difficult and confusing application process that discouraged applicants. State officials said last week that 11,300 applications had been received. There are nearly 475,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey, making up about 5% of the population.
Benefit amounts from the program remain the same, with one-time payments of $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families.
Changes in the rules that no longer require applicants to prove COVID-related impact were made by the federal government in January,.
State officials said they will also reevaluate the 531 rejected applications and will contact anyone with pending applications to inform them of the changes in the fund. . The deadline for applications is the end of February. – a short time to undertake a major overhaul of a program that critics say was not executed efficiently over many months.
“February is an ambitious deadline… it's an arbitrary deadline that the Murphy administration decided on that is not contingent on the spending of the relief fund dollars,” said Sheila Reynertson, a senior policy analyst at the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
Only around $6 million of the initial fund has been disbursed to applicants since it was launched in late October
The American Rescue Plan is federal COVID relief issued by the Biden administration and contains flexible dollars called Fiscal Recovery Funds that can be used in a variety of ways, including cash assistance for those who need it most, to promote equitable recovery.
Harold Wirths, the Republican assemblyman for the 24th District, comprising Morris and most of Sussex counties, said he opposed the excluded workers fund “philosophically and business-wise,” and supports using the $40 million to support legal residents and small business impacted by the pandemic. “You’re supposed to have a Social Security number, you’re supposed to have paid into the unemployment system, and this [the fund] is circumventing that, and my understanding is that this is probably the first time that people that aren’t registered through the Department of Labor and Social Security Numbers have got paid similar funds.”
Undocumented residents in New Jersey contribute approximately $587 million in state and local taxes each year, according to a 2020 study, using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers issued by the IRS to some non-citizens. Wirths said he agrees that anyone who pays into the unemployment system should get relief.
The one month is specific to making applications, said a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services. "Applications received during that period will be processed, vetted and there is no deadline to work with applicants and determine application eligibility and issue benefits," she said.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey's schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Gov. Murphy replenishes COVID relief fund for undocumented immigrants