At a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, doctors and community organizers urged the city to permanently fund a program that supports low-income workers who test positive for Covid-19 and receive no paid sick leave.
Medical experts, city officials and community organizers said the Right to Recover program, which pays covid-positive San Francisco frontline workers two weeks’ worth of minimum wage — approximately $1,285 — offers workers the means to stay home during their infectious stage and helps curb the viral spread to the rest of the community. And, following the most recent winter case surge, need is high — in January alone, hundreds qualified. Currently, about 40 people are referred to the program each day.
But Right to Recover and its recipients were repeatedly jeopardized because the program is largely dependent on private donations through Give2SF. Already, the program has had to “pause” at least four times when funds ran out, barring dozens of people from getting a timely check and causing program leaders to scramble to find ways to replenish the money.
During public comment, a Latino Task Force volunteer recounted one undocumented worker who had his case for Right to Recover application “dropped twice” and didn’t receive any other financial help, amid piling bills.
“It’s the execution that has created barriers to families to access those funds,” said Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, the convener of the Latino Task Force Resource Hub. “There has to be adequate funding. There would be funding, then it would run out. That defeats the purpose of really helping to stop the spread of covid, particularly in the Latino community.”
Infectious disease experts agree that without immediate isolation, it’s more likely someone might spread the virus to the rest of the community. But staying at home isn’t an easy task for some living paycheck to paycheck — data from the Mission Economic Development Agency, a neighborhood nonprofit distributing these funds, said 84 percent of its program recipients said they couldn’t isolate without the $1,250. Other data points suggest why: none could work from home, and about 66 percent of recipients had at least two children at home.
“We’ve heard from people directly that, without this resource, people are back working or looking for work,” said Joshua Arce, the director of workforce development for the Office of Economic Workforce and Development, which administers Right to Recover money.
This need spurred the residents to push officials to put the program in the budget, and to move away from its less stable philanthropy funding. Violeta Roman, a District 9 resident and a leader in the community organization Faith and Action Bay Area, said her whole family contracted Covid-19 last year. Roman said she had no access to government help and was only able to eat through community support. “I believe [funding this permanently] is the moral and ethical thing to do,” she said in Spanish.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who created Right to Recover in partnership with UCSF doctors and the Latino Task Force, told Mission Local that she agreed the program needs a new funding game plan, and the city budget is a potential solution.
“We just want the program to be set in stone, so people can be able to rely on it,” Ronen continued. “In order to do that, we need to make sure that there’s regular and ongoing public funding for this program.”
So far, the program has given out about $4.8 million to nearly 4,000 San Franciscans, according to the Office of Economic Workforce and Development. And in January, Mayor London Breed announced $400,000 in private donations and $6 million to come from unspent funds that would be reallocated to Right to Recover. “We can, and we will be, watching the usage of those funds way ahead of time, so there is enough time to do an additional budget supplemental if needed,” Ronen told Mission Local.
But at the current pace of need — about 40 referrals a day — these funds will run out by June 10, according to Arce. It could be gone sooner, too, depending on city positivity rates; earlier in January, an average of 77 referrals were made per day.
That spells trouble from a public health standpoint, doctors and officials shared on Wednesday, even as more people are being vaccinated. Dr. Diane Havlir, a UCSF professor of medicine who has been spearheading the Unidos en Salud testing campaigns, said that once someone gets infected with Covid-19, their viral load starts building fast. “They might feel totally fine, but they can transmit the virus to other people. And this happens for about a period of 10 days,” Havlir said. In order for people to isolate then, “financial services is essential,” she said.
And as testing improves and delivers results faster, as seen with the Binax test now being administered at 24th Street, the need to have available funds that are handed out quickly is even more crucial, Havlir said. On New Year’s Eve weekend alone, 460 people were referred to the program.
Latinx communities are affected disproportionately. About 60 percent of people asking for resources through the city contact tracing program after contracting covid are Latinx; about 91 percent of the Right to Recover MEDA clients are Latinx; and 55 percent of overall Right to Recover participants prefer to communicate in Spanish, speakers said Wednesday. Meanwhile, despite improvements, Latinx residents still make up nearly 42 percent of total covid cases, though they are only 15 percent of the population.
At the hearing, support for the program was clear. Supervisor Ahsha Safai, whose Excelsior district has the most recipients of the program, Supervisor Matt Haney and Supervisor Gordon Ma all expressed support for continuing and funding the program.
But as of Wednesday, Right to Recover will not receive a budget supplemental while its remaining $6.4 million is available, Ronen said. However, if funds are close to being exhausted again, Ronen said she will bring up the possibility of introducing a supplemental or reviewing it in the normal budget process cycle “so we never have to pause this again.”