By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio
For the first time, the majority of the West Liberty city council members are Latino. And during the council’s first meeting Tuesday evening, a coalition of workers left out of federal pandemic relief funding asked for their support. The workers spoke to the previous city council members, but now that four of the five city councillors are Latino, they said it gives them extra hope.
This is the first time the city council has reflected the majority Hispanic and Latino city.
The majority of the workers in the coalition are Hispanic or Latino and have been speaking to city councils in Iowa through an interpreter. This includes Des Moines in Polk County, Iowa City in Johnson County, Columbus Junction in Louisa County and others
Single mother Liliana Perez works at a supermarket and has lived in West Liberty for about 14 years. She said she hasn’t had the option of working from home since the store must remain open. Although she, nor her four children, have experienced serious physical health problems from COVID-19, she said the pandemic has had a big impact on her mental health. With the new city council, she said she feels better about her chances of receiving financial help.
“Pretty much, we have a lot of hope that they will support us in what we are asking them for precisely because they are Latino,” Perez said.
Due to the time constraints of the meeting, only a handful of people spoke after Perez. A few had similar stories, but most experienced more challenges.
The excluded workers coalition spoke to the West Liberty City Council through an interpreter.
One woman spoke about losing her job after contracting the virus and not being able to work for 15 days. Another man shared his story of living in a hotel for two months to keep his child safe. None of them received stimulus from the U.S. government.
Dana Dominguez is a new council member. She said this issue hits close to home for her. When the coalition first entered the room and new Mayor Katie McCullough was looking up their official name, Dominguez jumped in to help, knowing the name by memory.
Dominguez’s father was the first Latino police officer in the city.
“So I am on their side. I’m on everybody’s side that wants to come and say, ‘Hey, I feel excluded. I feel like I need this and nobody’s here for me,’ because I think everybody deserves that,” she said. “I know it’s going to be important for me, and it’s going to be important for those that are, you know, Latino on the council, but I hope that it’s important for the community who aren’t Latino but who have roots here in West Liberty.”
The coalition has received support from council member Jose Zacarias, who is in the middle of his second term. Zacarias interpreted some of the demands listed in the coalition’s letter to the council.
“My personal point is: these workers are people that pay taxes to begin with, because nobody in town whether it’s West Liberty Foods or the supermarket gets free money and if you are undocumented, you will never in your lifetime one penny of that. Now, this is the reality of the town and in my personal opinion, I am behind this movement,” Zacarias said.
Council member Cara McFerren spoke after Zacarias urging people to also consider the children of these excluded workers, many of which are U.S. citizens and were left out of the child tax credit.
“Granted, we don’t have an awful lot to give, but there could be kind of a fund that is set up in regards to paying for the particular residents here in town that do have children,” she said.
Muscatine County received $8.3 million and West Liberty was allocated a little more than $522,000 from the American Rescue Plan. The coalition is asking for $1,400 for each excluded worker. Based on their rough estimations of how many West Liberty workers who did not receive stimulus, the coalition estimates a little more than half of that allocation will go toward excluded workers, if the city council approves of the plan.
West Liberty workers are following the guidelines approved in Iowa City and Johnson County, which is the only area to have appropriated funds toward the coalition. Zacarias listed the guidelines that include: proof of identity, proof of West Liberty residence and an assertion of lower income.
Nothing has yet been decided in West Liberty.
*Perez’s words were translated from Spanish