Joahnna Bernal is the face of how the economic implosion brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the working poor.

“I only work half time now and it’s been difficult,” said the single mom who has been working as a janitor in downtown San Diego for more than 20 years. “Before the pandemic, I had two or three other jobs that helped cover expenses.”

If projections prove correct, Bernal shouldn’t expect things to change anytime soon. Which is why nonprofits such as Building Skills Partnership that are providing emergency relief to low-wage workers can use all the help they can get.

Born out of the Justice for Janitors movement that helped hundreds of immigrant custodians achieve improved working and living conditions, Building Skills Partnership has been forced to pivot toward filling a gap in economic relief available for immigrant families in San Diego. In partnership with The San Diego Foundation, Building Skills developed an emergency food and rent initiative for workers such as Bernal to ease their financial pressures.

“The food stipend was essential for my family since I am a single mother living with my kids,” Bernal said. “In addition, the funds we received to help pay our rent helped us even more because I am currently working part time and am not earning enough.”

In total, Building Skills Partnership provided more than $25,000 in subsidies for food and rent to janitors throughout San Diego County.

“We are working with low-income families who have been cleaning the buildings we work and stay in, yet even though they were deemed essential employees, they still were only making minimum wage,” said Crystal Ramirez, who serves as Building Skills Partnership’s San Diego coordinator. “We are doing what we can to make sure they don’t get left behind.”

The San Diego Foundation grant to Building Skills Partnership was provided via the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund, which the Foundation administers in collaboration with county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, co-chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisor’s COVID-19 subcommittee.

The giving marks an unprecedented moment among community foundations to help those impacted by COVID-19; more than $1 billion has been raised to date and more than $800 million already distributed. That’s in addition to another $1 billion in grants that have been made by donor-advised funds managed at community foundations since the start of a pandemic that has been exacerbating and magnifying the inequities in our communities.

The need cannot be overstated. Nearly 1 in 7 residents in the San Diego region are living below the federal poverty threshold – which, for a four-person household, means a total income of $24,230 – with San Diego County ranking 13th in the nation among major U.S. metro areas.

A San Diego Workforce Partnership report showed those employed in lower-paid, service-industry jobs are being impacted at a far greater rate than those in other fields. Since the early days of the pandemic – with dozens of San Diego Convention Center events cancelled, San Diego International Airport traffic reduced, and business towers nearly empty – employees working with Building Skills have been especially hard hit.

Building Skills Partnership is not looking for a handout. Instead, it is dedicated to providing a hand up. Its programming is aimed at addressing the unique barriers immigrant janitors and their children face in realizing the benefits of social, civic and economic integration. The organization’s unique partnership involves more than 90 janitorial employers, more than 60 commercial building owners, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Los Angeles, the Service Employees International Union–United Service Workers West, and the broader community. Initiatives include a Citizenship and Civic Education Program, an Infectious Disease Certification Program, and a Financial Literacy Program.

For now, though, the focus is on helping the working poor survive the financial strains brought on by COVID-19.

You can help San Diego service workers in need by donating today.