💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Rufina Rodriguez fought back tears as she recalled the messages from employers whose houses she cleaned for years. They were the same crushing words that so many workers in her field received — the ones that undid all the talk about domestic workers being part of the family.

“My bosses would send a text message or maybe call to say that we had to stay home,” Rodriguez, 49, said in Spanish. “We could not go to work.”

Overnight, she went from cleaning seven houses to none. “Some of my employers were willing to offer some type of help throughout the pandemic,” she added, “but not all.”

The coronavirus has dealt a crushing blow to the tens of thousands of people who work in the region’s cash economy and were consequently unable to qualify for state and federal stimulus programs. Domestic workers, farmworkers, home health aides, restaurant staff — many were forced to make distressing choices. Do I pay rent or do I put food on the table?

Rodriguez’s family faced an additional blow due to federal immigration laws: despite her husband and son being U.S. citizens, they could not qualify for a federal stimulus check because of Rodriguez’s status as a Mexican citizen.

Rather than fall victim to her circumstances, Rodriguez got working with her community to fight back.

She and other members of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance joined organizers to lobby the city. They demanded officials step in and carve out emergency funds to make up for the federal government’s alleged failure. Even after getting a stern “no” from City Hall, they persisted, fundraising from outside sources and working with elected officials on a solution.

Now, the results are here — in cash form.

This week, the city begins accepting applications for the Philadelphia Worker Relief Fund. It’s a $1.7 million pot of money that will provide $800 one-time cash payments to thousands of families left behind by other government aid programs.

The aid is financed by a mix of philanthropies and Philly groups — most significantly by a $750,000 infusion from liberal financier George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations has directed hundreds of millions to similar relief funds in other cities. Advocates hope the fund provides the scaffolding to continue this kind of urban labor policy down the road, providing assistance to financially vulnerable residents long after the pandemic gives way to the next economic crisis.

The one-time payments may not mean much for now, but for some families left behind by the pandemic, it’s the first sign of support in months.

“This is a tremendous help,” Rodriguez said.

How the workers won support

Back in March, it looked like the cash economy workforce would find little support in City Hall.

Mayor Jim Kenney demurred when asked what his administration would do to help residents like Rodriguez. Hundreds of workers protested city lawmakers on Zoom back in late March, demanding they step up to provide emergency assistance.

“The workers were involved in every step of the way,” said Marissa Rodriguez, a field worker with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance. “They spoke out. They gave testimonies.”

Under Kenney, Philly had recently adopted a “bill of rights” to ensure steady pay and scheduling for the city’s estimated 16,000 domestic workers, part of a package considered one of the most progressive in the nation. Still, the city’s message here was blunt: there’s no money. Hopefully the federal government will step up, the administration suggested.

As the city’s gaping revenue wound came into full view, it became clear finances would not improve. Other advocacy groups, meanwhile, set up privately financed coffers to help undocumented people and other cash-reliant workers.

The break came when the Open Society Foundations knocked on Philadelphia’s door. The Soros-funded philanthropy had already directed millions to establish relief funds in New York City, Chicago and other cities.

Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard said that while they hoped President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress would include undocumented people in the stimulus, they would fill the gaps for those excluded.

“Many immigrants and their families are on the front lines of the economic crisis doing the jobs so many of us depend on and keep our country running,” Gaspard told Billy Penn. “We are talking about workers who contribute billions in tax revenue to this country’s economy every year.”

A plan took shape with the city acting as fiscal conduit. A set of 14 community groups will help their members apply for the $800 debit cards available to those in need, and the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund of Philadelphia will help disperse the funds.

Continued philanthropy bolstered the fund.

A $500,000 gift from the Albert and Mary Douty Foundation and $200,000 from the William Penn Foundation. The Otto Haas Charitable Trust gave $250,000. Another $10,000 from the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, one of the city’s most prominent Black churches. The Mayor’s Fund, whose revenue comes from registration fees for the Philadelphia Marathon and other private sources, even chipped in $5,000.

‘Municipal socialism’ to pick up federal slack

The current funding can provide cash assistance to about 2,100 individuals — a fraction of the citywide need. Amy Eusebio, director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said the federal government’s response to the coronavirus revealed not only who matters in the U.S. economy, but whose work matters as well.

“It’s incredibly sad that there are so many folks who are having to make those tough decisions like whether they’re going to make food for their families,” Eusebio said. “The flipside is their resilience in the community.”

City officials emphasize the Worker Relief Fund is not just about aiding undocumented people. The partner community organizations — including Haitian American Voice, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and the African Cultural Alliance of North America — will act as gatekeepers, vetting loan applicants and recommend them to the city.

The Mayor’s Fund had a history of financial mismanagement under Kenney’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Nutter.

Asked about transparency in this case, Candace Chewning, outreach director for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, said there are eligibility criteria that must be met to receive aid. The applications also include flags that they hope will protect against fraudulent activity — like multiple people using the same address to apply.

But Chewning said the trust falls in the hands of the partner organizations to vet their members.

“There’s a point where we definitely just trust them,” Chewning said. “We don’t want to be micromanaging the distribution. It takes away from the purpose.”

The immediate goal is to grow the fund to at least $3 million, which could provide cash assistance for over 3,500 residents in total.

In a larger picture, members of the mayor’s administration and organizers who helped establish the Worker Relief Fund both say the framework is in place now for the city to provide a small security blanket for workers should the next crisis come.

The fund can be viewed as a kind of “municipal socialism” in that way, Chewning said, citing a growing call in left-leaning legislatures like Seattle to gear up to increase worker protections.

“What is the larger story here, we’ll see,” Chewning said. “We’d like to see funds like this grow.”

She added: “We are not providing these funds because people are vulnerable, but because people are important.”

How to apply for the Worker Relief Fund

Due to the limited funds, many organizations already have a long waiting list, though more spots will become available as funding increases. People seeking cash assistance can be placed on a waiting list by filling out this online form.

Interesting in donating to relief fund? Click the “support this project” button on the right side of the relief fund’s landing page.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...