‘My sincere condolences’

Inside the struggles and heartaches of FEMA’s massive covid funeral assistance program

Irene Hild decided to leave her job after eight months at FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance call center. (Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post)

DENVER — The only light in the apartment came from the glow of a computer monitor and a candle that was supposed to smell like Christmas cookies. The trainers had said to cultivate calm and self-care, and Irene Hild was trying. She called over her cat, took a deep breath and logged on to her computer, where the blue logo of the Federal Emergency Management Agency appeared.

“I hope you had a wonderful weekend and you’re ready to go,” came the voice of the shift manager overseeing FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance call center. The system had been crashing all morning, she said. “It’s been doing its thing again. Just use your judgment.”

Irene and her colleagues joked in a group chat that “just use your judgment” should be the motto of the assistance line. It was the main reason Irene, 23, had decided this would be her last week with the program, which provides up to $9,000 to offset funeral costs for victims of covid-19. She had started the job when FEMA created the call center in the spring. She liked the idea of helping bereaved families, and had also been thrilled to make $11.40 an hour instead of the $6 she’d been earning as a barista. But several thousand tearful, frustrated, confused callers later, she was done. She just wanted to get through her final days without stumbling and making some grieving stranger’s life even harder.

FEMA set up the assistance line this year after Congress set aside several billion dollars to pay for covid funerals. In a matter of weeks, the agency hired about 4,000 contractors across the country, turning fast-food servers, retail workers and Uber drivers, many in their early 20s, into government representatives and de facto grief counselors. More than a million calls came in when the program opened April 12, with some people trying dozens of times until they got through.

Now, with covid cases rising and snags in the program fueling a backlog of applications, calls were surging again. People who had just lost their loved one that morning, people who had been waiting on FEMA for months and were on the brink of eviction, people who said they needed the money to stop a crematorium from disposing of ashes, or to retrieve a body from a mass grave, all of it came to Irene. With 70 pages of scripts and instructions on her screen, she was the person advising about what was possible and what was not for families across the country who were dealing in the most intimate and specific ways with the pandemic.

“The most significant responsibility I’d had before this was making coffee, which if you mess that up, no one’s life is going to get ruined,” she said as she put on her headset and set her status to “available.”

Soon, a call from Tennessee appeared in her queue.

“This is the FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance line. My name is Irene. We are deeply sorry for your loss. How can I help you today?” she said, repeating the red text on her screen in a bright, singsong voice.

“Good morning or whenever it is,” said a woman in a soft tone. “Out of curiosity, where are you located?”

“We are not authorized to say where we are, unfortunately,” Irene said, reading from the script. “What can I answer for you?”

“Okay, sorry. I’ve been very depressed today,” the woman said. “I cried before I got on the phone. My husband died in July 2020. I did the services as cheap as I could because my husband got covid, then I got covid and couldn’t work, so I’m just wondering what is going on. I’m sorry I’m babbling. I’m just very depressed and sad.”

“Of course, of course, take your time, ma’am,” Irene said. She was jiggling her foot on the floor impatiently, but her tone was smooth and sympathetic. The guide on her screen said, “Communicate warmth. Allow for emotional expression or crying without interruption,” and for the next couple of days, that’s what she was determined to do.


At first, the call center job seemed like a stroke of incredible luck. Irene had received a message from a recruiter who saw her résumé on a job site. She remembered that the interview consisted of three questions. Did she have any call center experience? Irene answered no. Was she bilingual? No. Could she start in two weeks? Irene answered yes, and that turned out to be enough.

FEMA was working fast. The agency has historically reimbursed funeral expenses when people die in federally declared disasters regardless of financial need, paying for a few hundred memorials a year. Suddenly, officials had to figure out how to expand the program to accommodate all the Americans who had died of covid by that point in the spring — 500,000 — with no way to know how much higher the number would go. “This was something that was completely unprecedented,” Deputy Assistant Administrator Melissa Forbes remembered. “We did it the best we could.”

So far, the program has paid out $1.5 billion to 226,000 families, but beneath the numbers is a program that has been fraught from the start. There were so many elements to figure out. Lawmakers initially wanted to reimburse families whose loved ones had covid-19 symptoms listed on their death certificate, but, Forbes said, the agency decided that “to be good stewards of the federal taxpayer,” the death certificate needed to list the coronavirus itself. Officials considered building a new online application system, but determined it would be quicker to take registrations by phone. That meant building a huge call center operation, which meant writing scripts, sending laptops and headsets across the country to turn spare rooms and closets into FEMA-approved workstations, and putting together a day of training to prepare the new hires.

Irene was in the first group of trainees. She watched on her laptop as a FEMA worker reviewed the five stages of grief and talked about how to soothe callers “experiencing emotional crisis” given the “current pandemic environment.” The second half of the training focused on the distress these calls might cause agents. “The work we do is often times difficult and emotionally draining,” the trainer said. She encouraged the group to use deep breathing, prayers and mantras to relax, and gave them one of FEMA’s own devising: “Stress is not necessarily something bad — it all depends on how you take it.”

That was a Thursday. On Friday morning, Irene started taking calls. She reminded herself to sit up straight because the training had said that posture affects the tone of your voice. A tracker at the bottom of her screen was supposed to count the number of people on hold, but it only had space for two digits and blinked “99+” all day long. She remembered her first callers, and how nervous and excited she was to talk to them. A man whose voice kept cracking as he registered for the funerals of his mother, wife and brother. A son who wanted to know if he could claim his father’s death if he had also been sick with cancer. A woman who kept her on the line for an hour said she was fending off loneliness by talking with her husband’s ghost. After that, it all began to blur together because there were so many calls coming in — people wanting to sign up, people wanting to find out how soon until they could be done with FEMA forever, people wanting to thank her, people wanting to yell at her, perhaps knowing she was not allowed to hang up, and now eight months later and with two days left to go, a woman from Alabama was asking her why things were taking so long.

“It’s been months and months and months and I’ve called in every week,” the woman said. Irene could hear the exasperation in her voice, and she kept her eyes on her script as the woman launched into a long story about how she had struggled to figure out the delay.

Irene saw the problem — an agent had incorrectly marked her relative as having burial insurance, which would disqualify her from getting help. It was a mistake new hires often made, clicking the wrong button when they heard someone had life insurance. “Let me just go ahead and fix that,” Irene said.

“Well thank you,” the woman said.

“Fingers and toes crossed,” Irene said.

She hung up, wishing all calls could be that easy, with an actual solution to offer. The automated system counted down 30 seconds for her to collect herself before the next one, and here it came, a young woman from South Carolina who had requested reimbursement for her mother’s funeral back when wait times were shorter. Her paperwork was all in order, but, Irene said, following the script, “our official time frame is now more than 90 days from the date of registration.”

“Okay, because I borrowed money from people and they’re asking. They’re here on speakerphone,” the woman said, and began to explain that she was on disability and had no income, her mother had worked as a maid and had no savings, her father had sold his van to try to finance the funeral, but it still wasn’t enough even for a simple graveside burial. When relatives heard about FEMA’s reimbursement program, they loaned her several thousand dollars, but now they were getting impatient. “So do you know how long? It won’t be too much longer?” the woman asked.

Irene paused and adjusted her blue cat’s-eye glasses. She could hear men’s voices in the background. There was no telling when a worker assigned to checking documents would get around to this application. But her best judgment told her to try to be reassuring. “No, ma’am. I don’t believe so,” she said. She heard someone mutter “okay” on the other end of the line. “Fingers and toes crossed,” Irene said.

The guide on her screen reminded her, “Callers who have lost loved ones to covid-19 are undergoing a great deal of stress” and Irene knew it from the hurt and the grief coming through in each call, but more and more it seemed to her like some people were under additional stress because of the FEMA process itself, which, despite the agency’s best efforts, was still a work in progress, and an uneven one at that: Poor families that applied for help were being approved at significantly lower rates than rich ones. Wait times for decisions kept creeping up. Even the form that Irene filled out with every call showed an agency that was used to dealing with natural disasters, not covid deaths. The name of the covid-19 victim went into a field labeled “occupants.” The place where they died went under “damaged dwelling.” Contact information for the person applying went under “damaged phone.”

Eight months after the program’s launch, the script she followed was still full of crossed-out sections and additions. She was supposed to warn each applicant at the outset that some of it would sound odd, saying: “Please note, the current wording in our system reflects FEMA’s standard disaster registration process. I will be required to provide clarification for each question regarding how it relates to COVID-19 Funeral Assistance.” The instructions for how to get off the phone got even more complicated. “READ the instructions on the screen to the applicant,” the guide said, “but DO NOT READ the second sentence. READ the following additional statement at the end: ‘My sincere condolences to you and your family during this time.’ ”

Some days all of this got to the point where Irene would switch the message on her computer to “unavailable” and go lie on her couch. One day, she found herself googling “how to resign,” and now, her resignation imminent, a call was coming in from a crying woman in Mississippi who said she had spent down her savings to bury her mother, her sister and then her sister’s eldest son. She had been furloughed from her job for most of the pandemic, the church that had been her support had been closed, and she was struggling to pay off the last of the three headstones. “Take your time, take your time,” Irene said and waited.

The woman calmed down and thanked her. “I thought you were a recording. You have such a nice voice,” she said. It turned out she was calling because she wanted to get email updates about her case, an issue that needed to be handled by another department. “If you hang on one moment, I’ll get you transferred and they’ll be able to help you,” Irene said.

Thirty seconds to reset. The next call came and Irene turned the volume on her headset as high as it would go to make out the words of a man with a halting voice and heavy accent calling from New York City. “I first applied for help almost seven months ago,” he said.

“Yes, sir. Let me take a look here and see if we can’t get this straightened out,” she said in her calmest, slowest voice. She saw that the man had submitted a death certificate for his father from April 2020 that listed conditions associated with covid-19 — pneumonia, lung damage, heart failure — but not the virus itself.

“Since the death did happen right at the start of the pandemic, just contact a doctor who treated your loved one and get them to write a statement,” she said. The script said to call the man’s father “the deceased individual,” but her judgment told her that “loved one” would be easier for the man to hear.

The man explained that his father had died in a nursing home and never saw a doctor. He said he had already attempted to get the death certificate amended at the city records office. “I went there many, many times. Twenty times I went there, but they won’t change anything,” he said. “They didn’t know what was happening. It was just, ‘No oxygen is getting to his lungs,’ and he died.”

“Got you,” Irene said, bouncing her foot on the carpet. “Give me one second.”

She looked through the guide, trying to find a solution. “Then what we’ll need is something from the nursing home saying he had symptoms consistent with covid,” she said.

The man sighed. “Okay,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

After she hung up, she took off her headset and was silent for a moment. “He sounded really worn out,” she said, and wondered what he was going to do — and meanwhile in New York, the man also hung up, wondering the same thing.


The man she had been talking to was named Yong Chao Liu and he was 70 years old. A small Buddha sat on the table next to him, along with a harmonica his father had given him. He looked out at the street, debating what to do with advice from the woman at FEMA who knew his paperwork but nothing else of his life.

Go to the nursing home, she had said, but he hadn’t been to the nursing home since the week the city went into lockdown in 2020, when he had stood outside for an hour and a half in the empty street, hoping to drop off orange juice and cookies to his dying father inside.

Talking with government officials, even friendly ones like the woman on the phone, made him anxious. He had grown up in Shanghai and been sent to the countryside for reeducation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He immigrated to New York as a young man, found a job delivering takeout, and helped get green cards for his parents and younger siblings, all of whom settled within a five-block radius.

His father, Si Yuan, had been in his 90s, living independently in a rented apartment. He was supposed to have had only a brief stay in the nursing home, to recover from an infection. But then the pandemic began, Queens became an epicenter, and the nursing home had become the single deadliest facility in the borough. By mid-April, 44 of its 300 residents had died of covid-19.

As the oldest sibling and the only one who spoke English, Yong Chao took charge of the funeral arrangements for his father. Si Yuan’s body lay in a refrigerated truck outside of the nursing home for 10 days as his children, who mostly worked in the Garment District, struggled to gather money and find a funeral home with space for another body. In the end, Yong Chao borrowed $15,000 to finance the burial, going into debt for the first time since leaving China.

He still had not paid the money back a year later, when he saw Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on television, holding a news conference near the nursing home to announce the new funeral assistance program. “We are going to make sure that FEMA implements this well, that it is done in a way that’s easy for families to apply and get the dollars​​,” Schumer said.

Yong Chao signed up the day the call center opened. He faxed in his father’s documents and funeral receipts, and then he waited, and soon he and his daughter, Angela, began calling to ask about their claim. One call center agent said the issue was that his paperwork was illegible. Another said he needed to submit a more detailed death certificate. As he visited different government offices in Manhattan applying for documents, Yong Chao was becoming too anxious to sleep. He called FEMA so often that he memorized both the help line phone number and chunks of the script. When he told Angela about the call with Irene, she asked if it might be time to give up.

“They make it sound like, ‘We’re helping you out,’ and maybe they’re trying to, but really they’re asking for a task that we can’t get done,” Angela told him.

“But maybe if I go,” Yong Chao said. “FEMA says we just need a letter. It’s not a big deal.” And so he slipped his FEMA documents into a plastic bag and got on a train crowded with commuters, some of whom were wearing masks and some of whom weren’t. He sat staring straight ahead until the end of the line, then he walked 20 minutes to the nursing home, remembering how desolate the area had been the last time he had seen it.

Inside, Yong Chao asked to speak with an administrator. “My father died here,” he said. The receptionist typed Si Yuan’s name into her computer and a photograph of him appeared on the screen, along with the label “Discharged: Deceased.” Yong Chao looked away. “Please take a seat,” she said.

He waited as visiting hours began and the lobby filled with people carrying balloons and flowers. The receptionist went on her lunch break. The lobby emptied again as visitors went up to see their loved ones.

“My father was in good health when he came here,” Yong Chao said quietly.

At last, the administrator came out. “How can I help you, sir?” he asked.

“My father died here,” Yong Chao said, and pulled out the detailed death certificate he had requested from the city. “Somebody called me and said he had pneumonia, high fever, no oxygen — the symptoms of covid-19. FEMA said if you can write this case looks like covid-19, they can reimburse.”

The administrator shook his head. He had heard versions of this request before. “The problem is that during that time, the nursing home could not test for covid, so doctors couldn’t say,” he said.

Yong Chao pushed the death certificate toward him, along with a fact sheet about the funeral assistance program. “Our request is very low,” he said.The administrator studied the death certificate and explained that it was not even filled out by the nursing home doctor, who had herself been sick with covid and required to stay home during that catastrophic week, but by a nurse who had since quit. “At this point, we cannot revise a medical record,” he said.

“But actually it was covid,” Yong Chao said. “I’m just begging you. We borrowed a lot of money. We don’t have anything. We don’t have money to pay it back. FEMA can give us relief. So we just need you to help us. Can you please help us? Can you just say it was related?”

The administrator shook his head again. “It wouldn’t seem unreasonable — this was ground zero for New York City. But at that time, testing was not available in nursing homes. It’s not that we didn’t want to, it’s that we couldn’t.”

“Please,” Yong Chao said. He was thinking about how he should have pushed harder to visit his father one last time, should have gotten him back into his apartment as soon as the pandemic began. He didn’t want to leave without at least extracting a promise from the administrator to look into his case. “Why can’t you take responsibility? $9,000 is very important for us,” he said.

“I understand,” the administrator said, wrapping up. “Unfortunately, what FEMA is asking for is a very difficult standard for you to prove.”

Yong Chao asked if he could leave his phone number. “I just need some help,” he said.

The administrator wrote it down but warned, “I’m not hopeful.”

Yong Chao thanked him and bowed. He walked back to the station, taking a longer route to avoid the busy streets. “No matter how hard I work, still nothing,” he said. He didn’t know what else to do, except maybe give the FEMA helpline another try. “I’ll call again,” he said.


‘The best thing you can do is call back,” Irene was telling a woman in Kentucky. It was the first call of the morning on her final day of the job. Sometimes she told people to call back weekly. Sometimes she told them to call back in a few days.

She was counting the hours until her shift ended. The scented candle was burning low. Her cat was at her feet. “I’m so ready to be done,” she said.

A woman in Wisconsin called to file an appeal: “All they paid for was to have his body burned. They didn’t pay for the urn, they didn’t pay for the service or anything.”

A man in Arizona: “This is my fourth time calling today.”

A woman in Ohio: “Oh my land, it's been an awful year.”

The system counted down 30 seconds. Irene checked the time. Two more hours. Here came another call. Another. A caller in California. A caller in Illinois. A caller in Georgia: “I feel like I’m being pushed to the side and no one is trying to help.”

Just a few more and she would be finished. Eight months of callers in all the stages of grief. Eight months in which she had learned so much about what a person in emotional crisis sounds like. About how people hurt. About how people are angry. People who don’t listen. People who yell. People who offer a kind of patience and faith that broke her heart. Eight months, and she had learned about a country in the midst of a pandemic, the relentlessness of it, that the deaths kept coming every day. On this day alone, by the time it ended, 1,555 more people would be killed by the virus, and 1,555 more grieving families would be eligible for help from FEMA.

But not from Irene. “Good evening, this is the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance line,” she said, answering her final call, with a woman from Los Angeles whose daughter had just died in an intensive care unit. The call went on for six minutes and ended with the woman’s question unresolved, but she thanked Irene anyway. “Of course, of course. I hope you have a good rest of your day,” Irene said. The shift manager told her she could take off early to send back her laptop and monitor. She put down her headset and looked at the blue FEMA screen for the last time. “Okay, good luck,” she said, and set her status to “unavailable.”


Read more of The Post’s coverage about FEMA:

[The last days inside Trailer 83]

['Assistance not approved']

[Why FEMA is denying disaster aid to Black families that have lived for generations in the Deep South.]