By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Nearly 100 excluded and essential workers and their supporters walked from St. Anthony Catholic Church to the Scott County Administrative Center March 14, chanting slogans of empowerment and singing a song whose refrain asked Mary to walk with them.
Their group is among the excluded and essential worker movements that have emerged in Scott County, Johnson County and other parts of Iowa seeking financial recompense for workers who helped keep Iowa’s economy going during the pandemic. Many of these workers were excluded from pandemic relief funds based on the immigration status of themselves or someone in their household.
The movement in Johnson County, formed early on by seasoned organizer David Goodner of the Iowa City Catholic Worker, is seeing good results. The Johnson County Board created a $3.5 million fund to compensate excluded and essential workers. The only catch — many more excluded workers may qualify, resulting in competition for the limited amount of funds.
Inspired by the movement in Johnson County, Mayra Hernandez, an organizer with Quad Cities Interfaith, consulted with Goodner for guidance on organizing Scott County excluded and essential workers. “The work itself in Scott County has been led separately by the Scott County Essential Workers,” she said. “The essential workers are all parishioners of St. Anthony’s. They worship together but also work for justice out in the public world.”
Quad Cities Interfaith began working with the Scott County group in January, which was late in the Scott County Board’s budgeting process, Supervisor Ken Beck said. In mid-February, workers testified during the public hearing portion of a Scott County Board meeting about the effect of the pandemic on their lives. They asked the supervisors to reallocate a share of the county’s $33.6 million in federal pandemic relief funds to excluded and essential workers.
A week later, the workers shared their stories with Bishop Thomas Zinkula in the St. Anthony parish hall. He followed up with an editorial published in The Catholic Messenger and the Quad-City Times to express solidarity with and support for excluded and essential workers.
Support and gratitude
St. Anthony Pastor Father Rudolph Juarez, several other clergy and representatives from the Diocese of Davenport were among the participants in the March 14 walk of several blocks to the Scott County Administrative Center after business hours. The early evening was warm and sunny. Some motorists honked in support as they passed by.
Father Juarez addressed the crowd on behalf of Bishop Zinkula, who was in Washington, D.C., on business. “Based on the demands of Scripture to love God and to love our neighbor, the bishop expresses once again his support and gratitude for frontline workers regardless of status,” Father Juarez said. The bishop “walks with us in spirit today, out of the need for justice for all who put their safety and lives on the line during the COVID pandemic.”
The pastor said Bishop Zinkula recognizes the dignity of honest labor and honest laborers and believes that elected officials and members of the community need to appreciate “the sacrifice and contribution to the common good that these workers have made.”
In her remarks to participants, St. Anthony parishioner Gloria Mancilla said, “We are here today because tomorrow, at 8 a.m., the Scott County administrative officials will be discussing how they split the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. We can’t be here because we are essential workers and we need to work to keep our community going.”
Mancilla, also a representative of the Scott County workers, said the group has informed the county board of the community’s needs. “Yet, they still do not feel accountable to us. They argue that it’s too late. They say public hearings, surveys and committees were already established for this purpose, but many of us who are marching today spoke (for the last year) against ARPA money being used for the (new) juvenile detention facility and still the Scott County Supervisors did not listen.”
Regardless of the outcome, “with this march we are standing together and saying to them, ‘We count’ and in the November elections we need to make them know we stand together as a community of faith and justice. We want them to do the right thing because it is never too late.”
Change is slow
Supervisor Ken Croken of the Scott County Board marched with the group and commended their work, alternating his remarks in Spanish (with help) and English. “Many of you have helped keep our nation — yes, OUR nation — going during the darkest days of the pandemic. You have placed your own health and the health of your families in jeopardy to help ensure the continued health, safety and comfort of others. While many have called you ‘heroes’ for your service, not everyone is willing to pay you fairly for that service. That’s not right. I apologize. You deserve better. I will do what I can. But as you know, change is slow,” he said.
The Scott County Board met the following morning to discuss the FY2023 budget and Five-Year Capital Spending Plan, which included ARPA funding to go toward a new juvenile detention center. On March 17, the board formally voted 4-1 in favor, despite a last-minute plea by excluded workers. Croken was the lone dissenter. He proposed reallocating ARPA funding the board earmarked for the new juvenile detention center toward premium pay for essential workers in Scott County. The amendment failed for a lack of a second.
Excluded and essential workers sought direct aid in the form of a $3,200 stimulus check for every low-wage worker in Scott County ($10 million total) excluded from previous rounds of pandemic relief. They requested additional funding for premium pay for low-wage workers who performed essential work in Scott County throughout the pandemic.
“County supervisors had the perfect opportunity to invest critical COVID relief funding back into the community most impacted but they chose not to do that,” Hernandez said. “They made it clear with their decision that they do not listen to the public. So it is clear to us that we need to vote for representatives who will actually represent the diverse community.”
No one walks alone
Despite the defeat, “The essential workers have taken the first step toward creating a more just community,” Hernandez said. “We continue to meet with city elected officials about the Excluded and Essential Workers in Davenport. We will turn out the Latino vote in November. There are many more issues that impact the Latino community, and we will build the power that we need so that our values are reflected in the community.”
Meanwhile, in Johnson County, excluded workers called on the cities of Coralville and North Liberty to each contribute $1 million to the Johnson County Direct Assistance Program to grow the excluded and essential worker fund from $3.5 million to $5.5 million.
The county’s $3.5 million direct assistance program will distribute $1,400 checks to thousands of county residents negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but critics say the program is underfunded. Based on income eligibility requirements, as many as 30,000 people in Johnson County could be eligible for the program, but $3.5 million — $2 million from Johnson County and $1.5 million from Iowa City — is only enough to give $1,400 checks to 2,500 people, according to an Iowa City Catholic Worker e-news release. If more people apply, a lottery will randomly select who does and does not receive checks.
Now escucha mi voz, a new faith-based, immigrant-led community organization and expansion of Quad Cities Interfaith and the Gamaliel Network into Iowa, has core teams organized at Hispanic Catholic parishes in Iowa City, West Liberty, Columbus Junction, Washington and Muscatine.
Solidarity is essential to the workers’ efforts, and a core element in Catholic Social Teaching. As Father Juarez told the Scott County marchers, “We walk with excluded workers out of solidarity. We know that none of us walks alone and that by mutual support, help and advocacy, we further the cause of creating a more welcoming, friendly and prosperous community.”
“The procession of essential workers, faith leaders and community members was a way to show the power we have and the power we can build to create change in Scott County,” Hernandez said.