Vilsack sets $700-million program to help farm and meatpacking workers
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday announced a new $700 million grant program to provide direct financial relief to U.S. farm and meatpacking workers hit hard by COVID-19. But it was unclear whether undocumented immigrants, who make up roughly half of all farmworkers and nearly a quarter of meatpacking workers, would be eligible in all cases.
“I don’t have a specific answer to that question today,” Vilsack said when a reporter asked about eligibility for undocumented workers. “But I can tell you how I feel about it. We’re talking about people who … put themselves at risk. And frankly the pandemic didn’t choose between documented and undocumented workers. I understand and appreciate that there may very well be other legal issues that have to be resolved, but hopefully we’re able to provide as much help to as many people as possible.”
The Farm and Food Workers Relief program will award competitive grants of between $5 million and $50 million to qualifying state agencies, tribal entities, and nonprofits that will then disburse the money to farmworkers and meatpacking workers. Individual workers will be eligible for up to $600 to cover pandemic-related expenses that they often had to pay for with their own money, such as masks and other personal protective gear, increased childcare costs, and costs related to testing and quarantining.
Vilsack said it could take up to a year or two to fully disburse the money, and that workers would not need to provide receipts or other documentation to qualify for the aid. “People aren’t going to have to establish that they are entitled to this resource,” he said, “other than the fact that they showed up for work every single day during the pandemic, put themselves at risk, and no doubt the vast majority of these folks incurred expenses.”
Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farmworkers Foundation, noted that as the nation went into lockdown in 2020, farmworkers — deemed essential by state and federal governments — kept working. “Farmworkers are the first responders who safeguard the harvest, a job they perform with utmost urgency and dignity to feed their loved ones and sustain the nation’s food security,” she said. “And many struggled with the irony of the essential worker designation, wondering how they could be essential yet subject to removal from this country and ineligible for support during this pandemic.”
She said the median income for farmworkers in the United States ranged between $20,000 and $24,999 per year.
Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, said “meatpacking plants experienced some of the most deadly COVID-19 outbreaks … and there were workers that are deserving of our thanks and our help and support.”
FERN’s Covid-19 mapping project, which ran for 18 months and concluded on Sept. 2, tallied more than 90,000 food system workers who have tested positive for the virus, and 466 workers who have died. Due to the difficulty of obtaining good data from state and federal agencies, these numbers likely are an undercount.
Some $20 million dollars of the new grant money will be used to fund a pilot program for front-line grocery workers, and to test options for reaching them in the future. Vilsack said there were simply too many grocery workers to include in the new program, and said Congress could still “weigh in” with additional money for pandemic relief for workers.
Vilsack also said the USDA would soon announce a separate $700-million grant program to help cover safety and response costs for producers, processors, farmers markets, distributors, and seafood processors and vessels affected by COVID-19.