Campaign Underway to Replenish Fund Supporting Immigrant Workers

Hundreds of families in need remain on waiting list as financial aid dries up.

Arkansas United’s Essential Workers Fund has supported hundreds of agriculture and poultry workers impacted by the pandemic. The immigrant advocacy group has helped 800 families statewide through the distribution of $550 stipends. 

Unfortunately, the money from the fund is expected to run out by next week and 300 people who need assistance paying their bills remain on a waiting list. Heading into the holidays, not having sufficient money for rent is one of the biggest fears for families, says Mireya Reith, founding executive director of Arkansas United

“We’re about to surpass that eviction moratorium and folks that are late on their bills come January 1 could get kicked out to the streets,” Reith says. “And amongst the bills, right now we’re having our coldest week yet in Arkansas this fall and folks are gravely afraid about paying those electricity and gas bills.” 

Arkansas workers supported by the Essential Workers Fund
Maria as well as Fransisco and Deysi are some of the hundreds of people who have benefited from Arkansas United’s Essential Workers Fund. Courtesy: Arkansas United 

Additional federal economic relief could be forthcoming if Congress approves a new aid package, but in the meantime, Arkansas United is working to collect more money to replenish its Essential Workers Fund. Plans for the original version of this initiative began in July when the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation reached out to the nonprofit organization. 

WRF donated $75,000 to the effort while an anonymous donor chipped in $500,000. The donor has an interest in the agriculture and poultry sectors so funds were distributed to workers in those industries. The hope for the next round of funding is to expand the program to all essential workers who don’t have access to other aid.

Arkansas United’s effort to refill the fund began this week with Giving Tuesday. The initiative netted the nonprofit $7,240 and Reith says they plan to build on that momentum and raise additional funding during their annual Gala and State Convention Dec. 4-5.

Arkansas United 2020 Gala Poster“We are making sure as we approach donors and we approach Arkansans to make sure that people know the need is really that great in this moment,” she says. 

The pandemic is more evidence of the systemic barriers and issues that Arkansas workers confront, executive director Mireya Reith says. When the state experienced its first surge in cases over the summer, many essential workers lost their lives so this fund is a tribute to them and an effort to ensure that this never happens again.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the spread of the virus from March to June 2020 in northwest Arkansas demonstrates how the virus has disproportionately impacted minority communities.

While Marshallese and Hispanic residents represented approximately 19 percent of the population in Benton and Washington Counties, they accounted for 64 percent of COVID-19 cases and 57 percent of associated deaths. Contributing factors included a “lack of relevant health communications, limited coordination between stakeholders, mistrust of the medical system, financial need to work, and household density,” according to the report.

Other partners working on this initiative include the Marshallese Educational Initiative, El Centro Hispano and the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center. 

The fund has two components, the first of which is addressing the immediate and urgent needs of workers like paying bills. Essential workers have struggled to access state-funded programs for a lot of different reasons, Reith says.

“In the case of our immigrants, much of it has just been tied to the lack of language access and a lot of confusion around our community’s status and eligibility for programs, which required a lot of advocacy,” she says. “And unfortunately, almost all of those programs ran out within weeks in ways that prevented a lot of our community from getting that assistance.”  

Providing subgrants to nonprofits fighting for workers rights is the second component of the fund. The application process will be announced later this month, with distribution of funds expected in January. 

The original goal of the program was to support five regions of the state equally, but emphasis was placed on rural areas.

“These rural communities many of them are served by regional nonprofits or Community Action Centers and even prior to COVID were being served by folks two or three hours away from where they lived,” Reith says. “Resources and support in general to those communities are challenging.” 

So far the nonprofit has awarded funding to 80 workers in central Arkansas, 100 in northwest Arkansas, 120 in the River Valley and 150 in both northeast and southeast Arkansas. Arkansas United assisted 200 workers in the southwest portion of the state, the first region to surpass its quota.

“Even with giving them additional cushion, again we’re just touching the surface of the need that we’re really seeing across the entire state,” Reith says.

While northwest Arkansas is often highlighted because poultry companies like Tyson Foods are headquartered in the region, there are several poultry plants located all along the western part of the state. 

These areas have substantial immigrant populations that are contributing to a shift in demographics, Reith says. In southwest Arkansas, for example, 61 percent of De Queen’s population is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates

Even though there is great need among immigrant families in the southwest region, Reith says they encountered trust issues when offering assistance.

“Many of these communities, no one’s ever come and offered an aid program and so a lot of folks wondered if it was even real,” she says.

Once funds were distributed, residents shared their experience with others.

“They told the community about how this made all the difference in being able to pay bills, keep lights on,” Reith says. “Word spread quickly and so that’s why it was just within three weeks southwest Arkansas met their quota. It’s a small tight-knit community and we were able to, as a result, connect with folks quickly and offer assistance to a very isolated community in a great moment of need.”  

Arkansas United’s Gala and State Convention will focus on raising funds to continue supporting these communities by selling raffle tickets and soliciting donations.

Registration for the two-day event is free. Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. José Romero is the keynote speaker for the event, which will be hosted via Zoom this year. 

Essential workers in need of assistance can contact Arkansas United at 479-763-2822. Navigators will first try and identify if applicants are eligible for other aid programs before accessing the Essential Workers Fund. More information is available at Facebook.Com/ARImmigrants

Editors Note: This story has been updated to include data from a CDC report released the afternoon of Dec. 3. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.