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Collecting FEMA Funeral Money Takes Some Tenacity — And Help

As a funeral director at Ingold Funeral and Cremation in Fontana, California, Jessica Rodriguez helps families say goodbye to their loved ones. “We serve predominantly Latino families, most of them second- and third-generation” residents, said Rodriguez. “We do have quite a few that are first-generation, that don’t speak any English.”

Most are unaware of a federal program that offers up to $9,000, she said. And even when they know about the aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the process is daunting and the bureaucracy confusing. The lack of English skills hinders some families of people who died of covid from receiving reimbursement from FEMA for funeral expenses, so her office offers them help in Spanish.

Rodriguez herself is one of the applicants. “My father passed away from covid. That’s why I really wanted to push the program,” she said. “I know firsthand what it’s like to have to come up with that type of money without having planned to do so.”

Rodriguez said her funeral home, in a city where nearly 70% of its 215,000 residents are Latino, kept a running list since the start of the pandemic of all of the deceased they took care of who died of covid. “Originally, the reason we compiled a list was to see the impact,” she said. “But when FEMA first announced the funeral assistance program, we made it a point to call every family that was on that list and let them know about it.”

As of Monday, FEMA has approved more than $278 million for more than 41,000 eligible applicants, with the average amount per application standing at $6,756. FEMA said it does not consider ethnicity when determining eligibility, so the agency does not track that data.

Offering clients help to get some of that money is important because California’s Latinos suffered more covid deaths than any other race or ethnic group and the Latino population has faced a greater risk of exposure to covid-19 and undergone testing at a lower rate, according to a study by Stanford University researchers. Latinos are also far more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in a household with an essential worker, who might not have had the luxury of protecting themselves at home during the ravaging months of the pandemic.

“In my career of 35 years, I’ve never been in this type of situation where I have seen so much death,” said Rafael Rodriguez, a funeral director in the city of Bell at Funeraria del Angel Bell, part of Dignity Memorial.

The cost of an average funeral can be as much as $15,000, he said, so the FEMA reimbursement program offers financial relief for many clients. But it isn’t easy to get the money.

Rodriguez and the funeral home’s office manager, Norma Huerta, said they have been receiving calls daily from people confused about how to apply. “These are humble people who don’t have access to the internet or know how to use a computer,” said Huerta. “They already trust me since I helped them with the funeral process. How could I say no?”

Even though the FEMA helpline offers instructions in Spanish, uploading, emailing or even faxing the necessary documents has been a challenge, said Huerta. “I can spend three to four hours a day helping families with their applications.” Just sending over a fax cover sheet is frustrating, she said. “I tell them it takes a while, but to have patience and I’ll help them get it done.”

Families call to request duplicate contracts and receipts and ask for clarification about death certificates. The hardest part for some has been proving their family member’s death was covid-related, said Huerta. If the death certificate doesn’t specifically state that, they won’t qualify. Death certificates can be amended to receive reimbursement, but that process is also complicated and time-consuming.

Manuela Galvez, a 61-year-old originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, is one of the applicants Huerta helped. She lost her son Luis Alberto Vasquez to covid on April 22, 2020. The 36-year-old managed a cleaning crew that disinfected assisted living facilities, which is where Galvez suspects her son got covid.

Galvez said she heard about the FEMA checks from family members but didn’t understand the process. “Norma did me a huge favor filling out that paperwork,” Galvez said in Spanish. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself because I’m completely lost when it comes to technology.”

Those who need help the most are the most disconnected, said Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, director of University of California-San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. “Many times they are people who not only don’t speak English, but at times, don’t even speak Spanish well,” said Medina. “Like people who come from Yucatán who speak Maya.”

Isaias Hernandez, executive director of Eastmont Community Center in East Los Angeles, said many of the people asking him for help feel overwhelmed by the process. “Most have never buried a loved one, so they’re emotional and still dealing with the trauma,” said Hernandez. “Just gathering the documents seems complicated to them.”

Undocumented immigrants and those who hold temporary visas are not eligible for FEMA’s funeral assistance, even though advocates like Hernandez say these are the people who kept the country afloat during the pandemic. “They work in the grocery stores, the day cares and schools,” he said. “They’re the essential workers.” Hernandez said his office has received only a few calls from people inquiring about legal-status qualifications.

He said it’s not just about having access to technology, but also access to people who can support them. “People in our community are extremely dependent on the younger generation who can help them navigate basic computer functions,” he said.

For Galvez, that person was her late son, Luis Alberto. “He was the one who was the most patient with me,” she said.

Galvez is waiting to hear back from FEMA on whether she qualifies to be reimbursed for the $5,400 she spent on her son’s funeral. “If they can’t give me any money, that’s OK,” said Galvez. “It’s help they’re offering that I wasn’t expecting to get anyway. It’s in God’s hands.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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