As a funeral director at Ingold Funeral and Cremation in Fontana, California, Jessica Rodriguez helps families say goodbye to loved ones. “We mostly look after Latino families, most of them second and third generation,” said Rodriguez. “We have some of the first generation who don’t speak English.”
Most are unaware of a federal program that offers up to $ 9,000, she said. And even if they know about the help of the Federal Emergency Service, the process is daunting and the bureaucracy confusing. The lack of English proficiency is preventing some families of people who have died of Covid from receiving funeral reimbursement from FEMA, so their office is offering them help in Spanish.
Rodriguez himself is one of the applicants. “My father died of Covid. That’s why I really wanted to push the program, ”she said. “I know firsthand what it is like to have to raise so much money without planning it.”
Rodriguez said her funeral home was in a town in which almost 70% of its 215,000 inhabitants are Latinos who have kept a running list of all the deceased they care for who have died of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic. “We originally made a list to see the impact,” she said. “But when FEMA first announced the funeral services program, we made it our business to call and let every family on that list come up.”
As of Monday, FEMA has approved more than $ 278 million for more than 41,000 eligible applicants, with the average amount per application being $ 6,756. FEMA said it doesn’t consider ethnicity when determining eligibility, so the agency doesn’t track this data.
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It is important to help customers get some of this money as California Latinos suffered more Covid deaths than any other race or ethnic group and the Latino population was at greater risk from exposure to Covid-19, and noisy was tested less one study by researchers at Stanford University. Latinos are also much more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in a household with a key worker who may not have the luxury of protecting themselves at home during the devastating months of the pandemic.
“In my 35-year career, I’ve never been in a situation like this where I’ve seen so much death,” said Rafael Rodriguez, a funeral director in the town of Bell at Funeraria del Angel Bell, part of the Dignity Memorial.
The cost of an average funeral can be as high as $ 15,000, he said, so the FEMA reimbursement program offers financial relief to many customers. But it is not easy to get the money.
Rodriguez and the funeral home manager Norma Huerta said they had daily calls from people who weren’t sure how to apply. “These are humble people who don’t have access to the Internet or who don’t know how to use a computer,” said Huerta. “They’ve trusted me since I helped them with the funeral. How could I say no? “
Although the FEMA helpline offers instructions in Spanish, uploading, emailing, or even faxing the required documents was a challenge, Huerta said. “I can spend three to four hours a day helping families with their applications.” Just sending a fax cover sheet is frustrating, she said. “I’ll tell you it will take a while, but be patient and I’ll help you get it done.”
Families call to request duplicate contracts and receipts, and to clarify death certificates. The hardest part for some was proving that their family member’s death was related to Covid, Huerta said. If not specifically stated on the death certificate, they are not qualified. Death certificates can be modified to receive reimbursement, but this process is also complicated and time-consuming.
Manuela Galvez, a 61-year-old originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, is one of the applicants Huerta has helped. She lost her son Luis Alberto Vasquez to fall ill with Covid on April 22, 2020. The 36-year-old led a cleaning team that disinfected assisted living facilities where Galvez suspects her son was getting Covid.
Galvez said she heard about the FEMA checks from family members but didn’t understand the process. “Norma did me a great favor filling out the paperwork,” Galvez said in Spanish. “I wouldn’t have made it myself because I’m completely lost in technology.”
Those in need of help the most are most segregated, said Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, Director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California-San Diego. “Often it is people who not only speak no English, but sometimes not even speak Spanish well,” said Medina. “Like people who come from Yucatán and speak Maya.”
Isaias Hernandez, executive director of the Eastmont Community Center in East Los Angeles, said many of the people who ask for help are overwhelmed by the process. “Most have never buried a loved one, so they are emotional and still struggle with the trauma,” said Hernandez. “Simply gathering the documents together seems complicated to them.”
Undocumented immigrants and those who have a temporary visa are not authorized for FEMA funeral aid, though proponents like Hernandez say these are the people who kept the country afloat during the pandemic. “They work in grocery stores, daycare centers and schools,” he said. “They are the most important workers.” Hernandez said his office received few calls from people inquiring about legal status qualifications.
He said it’s not just about having access to technology, it’s also about having access to people who can support it. “The people in our community are extremely dependent on the younger generation to help them navigate basic computer functions,” he said.
For Galvez, that person was her late son, Luis Alberto. “He was the one who was most patient with me,” she said.
Galvez is waiting to hear from FEMA whether she will be eligible for a refund for the $ 5,400 she spent on her son’s funeral. “If they can’t give me money, that’s fine,” said Galvez. “It’s a help they offer that I didn’t expect anyway. It’s in God’s hands. “
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