Last October, Kalihi resident Steve Palsis buried his wife of 28 years.
She caught COVID-19 in late September, and died within days. The suddenness of her death was compounded by his own sickness and the high cost of her funeral: about $13,000.
A new federal program is aimed at helping people who lost their loved ones to the coronavirus recoup the cost of their burials. But Palsis, who has lived and worked in Hawaii for decades, is not eligible.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency rolled out a new COVID-19 funeral assistance program this month that’s open to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals — such as people born in American Samoa — and qualified immigrants.
Democrats in Congress have touted the program as helping low-income communities of color who were disproportionately killed by the pandemic. However, many Pacific Islanders like Palsis living and working legally in the United States are not eligible for the compensation even though they have been among those most affected by the coronavirus.
Those excluded are citizens of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau who are subject to treaties with the United States known as the Compacts of Free Association. The agreements allowed citizens of those countries to stay indefinitely in the United States in exchange for U.S. military strategic control over a vast swath of the western Pacific.
Pandemic-inspired border closures have left some Pacific migrants who want to bury their loved ones back home in limbo while they wait for their island nations to reopen. But even those who choose to bury their loved ones in Hawaii have struggled with the high costs.
The FEMA program started accepting applications on April 12 from families who can prove their loved one died of COVID-19 in a U.S. state or territory. The deceased person does not have to have any particular legal status.
Families can receive up to $9,000 per funeral or $35,500 if they paid for multiple funerals. So far, there’s high demand — nearly a million people reportedly called the program in the first 90 minutes.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she has heard from many Micronesian community leaders who are concerned about the issue and she is working on a solution.
“My office is working to understand if FEMA has any flexibility to interpret the applicable law to make COFA citizens eligible for funeral benefits,” she said in an emailed statement.
“If we determine that a change in law is required, I will be working on legislation to make the changes necessary to ensure COFA citizens are eligible for this benefit and other crucial social safety net programs.”
In Hawaii, people from those countries are among those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic, with data showing Pacific Islanders — excluding Native Hawaiians — have reported the highest rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths compared with other ethnic groups.
A recent state report found that non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders were 14 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the average Hawaii resident and 38 times more likely to die than white Hawaii residents.
Palsis, 53, moved to Hawaii in 1989 from Kosrae in Micronesia to attend trade school and learn flooring, plumbing and other skills. He and his wife of 28 years, a registered nurse, raised their family in Salt Lake before moving to Kalihi.
But when the pandemic hit, Palsis said he lost his job at a flooring company. He said his wife Brocula, 65, was already unemployed before the pandemic because she had diabetes and was too sick to work.
Brocula died on Oct. 1, days after contracting COVID-19.
“It was very sudden,” Palsis said in a phone interview. “It’s hard to talk about it.”
Palsis caught COVID-19 too but survived. He paid for his wife’s funeral with the help of family, friends and his church. But it was still a huge cost, totaling about $13,000. Since then, Palsis has struggled to pay rent while working part time.
He had hoped the FEMA funerals program would help him pay back rent and avoid eviction.
But he learned he was excluded and began looking into other rental subsidy options and for cheaper, smaller housing.
In Arkansas, where many Marshallese work in chicken factories, the CDC at one point during the pandemic concluded Marshallese residents there were 65 times more likely to die than white Arkansas residents.
Melisa Laelan, who runs the nonprofit Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, has spent the past year helping families take care of their sick loved ones, avoid eviction and bury their family members who died of COVID-19. She’s disappointed about the limitations of the funeral funding program.
“It’s just another systemic injustice,” she said.
Part of what’s frustrating to Laelan is that the exclusion from the federal program comes just four months after Congress reinstated Medicaid for the community.
“It seems like you fix one issue and another one pops up,” she said. “It seems like this ongoing revolving door and now I’m beginning to think that there will never be an end to the fight.”
The 1996 Welfare Reform Act removed Compact migrants’ eligibility for many federal safety net programs. Effectively they are treated as temporary residents under the law, even though their legal status allows them to stay in the U.S. indefinitely.
Some get green cards and become U.S. citizens, but many live here for decades and die here without doing so, in part because there’s no dedicated pathway for Compact migrants to obtain permanent residency.
While Medicaid access was recently restored, the community is still ineligible for other programs such as Social Security Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, according to a 2019 report by a Hawaii advisory group to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that recommended restoring migrants’ eligibility for several programs.
In 2018, in the wake of Super Typhoon Yutu on Saipan, migrants who lost their homes in the disaster were ineligible for FEMA disaster assistance.
There have been other systemic challenges too. After Congress left the community out of the REAL ID Act, it took more than a decade to fix the problem and allow them to fully access federally approved driver’s licenses. Last year, Hawaii left the migrants’ legal status off of an application for unemployment insurance, even though people who work are eligible for that support.
Laelan and other community advocates were excited about the funeral assistance program but now see it as one more program that they pay into as taxpayers but can’t access.
“We are most impacted by death from COVID and now we are being excluded from this program,” Laelan said. “It really doesn’t make sense (that) the people who need this more, we are going to take them out.”
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