EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- A new Federal Emergency Managment Agency funeral assistance program aims to help families pay for COVID-19 funerals they did not expect to be having, but more than a month into its launch, thousands are still waiting to be paid.
"I was calling on behalf of a family to help," said D'Ann Derr, a funeral director and assistant manager at Perches Funeral Homes, which has helped individuals in El Paso apply. "Our hold time was going to be about 15 hours. There was like 15,000 people on hold above us."
Applicants can request up to $9,000 per funeral, so long as the victim died of Covid-19. The payment will be delivered as a reimbursement. Applicants must apply by phone.
"When you're caller 15,000 something, then that can be a little bit discouraging for some people," she said. "You just don't know how long your hold time is going to be."
ABC-7 tried calling Thursday right when the call center opened at 7 a.m. MT and was connected to an agent without a hold.
The program launched in mid-April. As of Tuesday, the agency reported 17,727 Texans had applied, but only 650 had been approved for relief (about 3.7%). In New Mexico, 1,074 had applied and 24 had been approved (about 2.2%).
"I'm sure it can be somewhat of a deterrent for some families, as well as the application process, as in a whole, especially when you start seeing that there's a little bit of red tape," Derr said.
ABC-7 asked FEMA for their response to those frustrated by delays.
"This is the largest number of funeral assistance applications in the agency’s history," a FEMA representative wrote in an email. "In the first 90 minutes of the phone number being online, nearly 1 million calls came into the center, causing technical issues and jammed phone lines. We are working to manage those calls, and to increase our call center capabilities."
The representative asked applicants to be patient.
"Please try again later if you get a busy signal or your call doesn’t connect. There is no deadline to apply. We have contracted support that provides us with 5,000 agents, and we’ve augmented that number with other federal government staff to help handle the huge volume of calls."
The representative said it should take roughly 20 minutes to apply.
Despite the challenges, Derr said programs like this are essential.
"Many times families are not prepared," she said. "They're just trying to survive from day to day.. .They're not prepared for death. They weren't prepared before a pandemic and they certainly weren't prepared during a pandemic."
You can apply for FEMA's Covid-19 funeral assistance by calling 844-684-6333. No online applications will be accepted. The call center is open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mountain Time.