Sonoma County immigrant advocates call for more financial help for Latinos struggling during pandemic

Photo credit: Kent Porter, Press Democrat

Sonoma County immigrant rights advocates on Wednesday urged local elected and public health leaders to respond with greater urgency to the devastating health care and economic setbacks area Latinos have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the disparity has been clear for months, Latino residents, many of them immigrants, are still contracting the infectious disease at a rate three times that of other county residents. Some of them are undocumented, but have lived and worked in the community for years.

“We feel frustrated and angry and with no more patience,” said Renee Saucedo, program director for ALMAS, calling the county’s response to the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 infections among Latinos and other immigrants inadequate.

During an online press briefing Wednesday, a few local immigrants shared stories of financial desperation with no work, inadequate medical benefits and the crushing weight of unpaid bills, especially rent.

Immigrant residents are going to have a hard time being thankful “when our community is suffering so much due to COVID-19,” said Saucedo, whose group helps women and domestic laborers improve workforce development opportunities and supports their workplace rights.

As of Wednesday, Latinos represented 71% of the county’s total 11,712 virus cases in which race and ethnicity are known. Yet they comprise only 27% of the county’s population of about 500,000 people. And the disparity could be greater because about 2,300 residents infected by the highly contagious virus declined to share their race or ethnicity.

Realizing the dire situation, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in late October approved spending $16 million on a long-term effort aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19 by focusing public health efforts on disadvantaged neighborhoods hardest hit by the contagion. A key part of the strategy was last month’s launch of expanded and targeted virus testing in those neighborhoods.

The county’s enhanced pandemic response also includes giving $30 gift cards to induce people to get tested and granting $1,216 one-time stipends and hotel vouchers to residents who contract the virus, but have difficulty isolating at home. Due to state public health rules, the county’s ability to further reopen the local economy depends partly on reducing daily virus infections equitably in poor and immigrant communities, as well as privileged areas.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said later Wednesday public health staff continue working to address racial and ethnic disparities in virus infection rates. In addition to aggressive testing, she said staff has been identifying hotels where those living in cramped homes can go to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19.

Alluding to the financial hardship among Latinos grappling with virus exposure, Mase said the county’s “financial package,” of stipends and hotel vouchers for low-income residents who don’t get employer paid sick leave will be sweetened starting in December.

In addition, the county awarded a $1.4 million contract two months ago to a Napa-based nonprofit, On the Move, to provide financial assistance to families daunted by the virus. The organization, through its Santa Rosa project La Plaza, so far has given about $600,000 in emergency financial assistance to 399 local families. The average family distribution has been $1,700, and demand remains strong.

Meanwhile, Undocufund, a local nonprofit formed three years ago to assist undocumented immigrants hurt by the Tubbs fire, has provided nearly $5 million to more than 5,000 local families, said Omar Medina, the group’s coordinator and a Santa Rosa City Schools board member.

But Irma Garcia, a member of North Bay Organizing Project’s immigrant defense task force, said these public and private efforts, while noble, are only “one-time” grants that do not sufficiently address the mounting financial toll on Latinos and other immigrants who have shouldered the brunt of the pandemic.

County officials need to provide more money to struggling immigrants, better ensure their safety as part of the county’s essential service workforce, streamline virus testing and improve follow-up to those who contract COVID-19.

During the press briefing — organized by the Graton Day Labor Center, North Bay Organizing Project, Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment and ALMAS — a female undocumented worker who identified herself as Lourdes said her family lives in a house with another family. Seven of nine people in the household caught the virus. Making matters worse, her husband lost his job in October.

Employers often “discriminate” against her and other family members because of their previous COVID-19 diagnosis, Lourdes said.

“My cousin and I were able to find a housecleaning job, but when the employer found out that we had COVID, the employer acted as though they’re afraid of us,” she said. “We are desperate because there is no work and no government assistance.”

Vicky, a Healdsburg restaurant worker whose family shares a home with another family, said her former employer also refused to take her back after she and others in her household contracted the coronavirus. She’s now working three days a week cleaning houses.

“I have to pay my rent, $1,000 (a month) … but I’m in a state of desperation and I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Paul Gullixson, the county’s chief spokesman who listened to the press briefing, said county officials are in contact with local immigrant rights groups to figure out ways to better connect members of the immigrant community with programs providing assistance.

“We feel for them and their situation and the county has created programs that are really trying to address those needs with financial assistance, both while they have to isolate, for COVID-positive individuals, but also for rental assistance,” Gullixson said.

Martin Espinoza
Press Democrat
November 25, 2020