Left Behind Workers Fund in Denver, CO


The Denver City Council and community coalition partners recognized federal and state Covid-19 relief funds intentionally left  out many Denver residents. In fact, estimates showed that 17,000 immigrants—who work primarily in the service industry such as restaurants, hospitality, concessions, and janitorial services—were left without any financial support during the height of industry closures.  

The fund is hosted and administered by a Denver nonprofit organization, Impact Charitable. The city contributed $750,000 from the General Fund, which attracted $980,000 in matching philanthropic contributions. To be eligible for the one-time payment of $1,000, an individual must demonstrate a loss of income related to the pandemic by way of being laid off, having a reduction in hours of more than 20 hours/week, or being unable to work due to the need to care for family members or quarantine due to exposure to Covid-19. Most notably, eligibility relied on not receiving unemployment benefits or CARES Act funding, and being a resident of the city of Denver. In terms of logistics, recipients who had bank accounts (surprisingly, the vast majority did) received a direct deposit, while unbanked recipients received a money order through Western Union, which accepts many forms of international IDs. 

In 2017, the city passed one of the nation’s strongest measures limiting municipal cooperation with ICE. Thanks to the effort behind this measure there was a high level of alignment among the elected officials from the City Council and Mayor’s administration who worked together to pass the investment. While there was an expectation that the program might draw controversy from observers outside Denver due to the political climate, it actually did not garner any such attention. The matching philanthropic contributions made this program particularly attractive and politically feasible in spite of severe budget constraints facing the city. In late October, the city contributed another $1 million dollars from their CARES act allocation.



Councilmember-at-large Robin Kniech was approached by community organizations Together Colorado, Colorado People’s Alliance, and SEIU. They had been working together to support the bases of their organizations, predominantly immigrants, who had been laid off and were particularly hurt by the impact of the pandemic. In-kind assistance, such as food and rental assistance, can be difficult to obtain, and it felt clear through their conversations that support needed to be offered in the form of direct cash assistance to have the biggest impact.  

The councilmember and community organizations explored different models for how to set up the fund in Colorado, navigating the ins and outs of various legal questions about public benefits vs. emergency assistance. Together they agreed to embark on investing in the small philanthropic pilot that came to be known as the Left Behind Workers Fund, which provided direct cash assistance to all community members regardless of immigration status. 

While both the city and the state provided in-kind assistance such as food and rental assistance, it quickly became clear that the city needed to offer more unrestricted support so that families could use assistance to get what they needed the most, whether that was to buy food, pay rent and bills, or to pay for healthcare or transportation. Moreover, research showed that setting up the fund this way was more efficient and effective by reducing administrative overhead costs associated with third party payments or distribution of goods, and was demonstrated to reduce poverty. 

With regard to implementation, the program has two distinct roles for nonprofit partners:

  • Trusted nonprofit community service providers. These partners already had the infrastructure to provide direct services and had existing staff to implement the new screening and approval process.
  • Community organizations and unions. These partners already had strong personal relationships in vulnerable communities and their role was primarily to reach out into communities that are particularly vulnerable to displacement. They were responsible for “pre-screening” people and directing them to the service providers leading the primary screening process.



As noted above, ensuring that the cash assistance was available to all residents regardless of immigration status was a top priority for Councilmember Kniech and the community organizations because this community had been knowingly left out of state and federal assistance programs. 

Their focus was on mitigating the impacts of the pandemic to immigrant and undocumented communities, who so often face bias and exclusion and had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Not only were these communities left out of state and federal aid bills, but under current restrictions in federal unemployment insurance, they are not even eligible to receive payments because of their immigration status, despite being unemployed and despite a majority paying taxes (through their pay stubs or an ITIN filing) that contribute to these programs. 

Setting up the cash assistance fund allowed Denver to offer emergency relief in a dignified and respectful manner to the immigrant workers who contribute so much to the city, typically with little community support in return.



  • Legal challenges based on 8 U.S. Code § 1621 have been made against similar programs elsewhere, making analysis of any state laws implementing that federal statute, and if there are any relevant state laws, analysis of any home rule limits or powers, important steps. 
  • Local government dynamics: Progressive with strong support for the policy building on a 2017 measure to limit municipal cooperation with ICE. 
  • Strong: funnels direct cash assistance to a population most impacted by the pandemic and left behind by state and federal stimulus relief.


This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.