Biden administration announces $600 aid payments to meatpacking and farm workers
On Tuesday, the Biden administration’s Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to send individual pandemic relief grants of up to $600 to meatpacking and farm workers, as part of a new Food and Farm Workers Relief grant program that will reimburse workers for Covid-19-related expenses including childcare and personal protective equipment. The money will be distributed through state agencies, nonprofit organizations including unions, and Tribal entities. Additional funds will be set aside for a pilot program to aid grocery store workers. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack did not immediately answer a question about how much of the $700 million fund would be earmarked for administrative costs.
The total funding set aside for the grant program is a fraction of what the federal government has disbursed to business owners in pandemic-related aid.
“I think the goal here is to try to provide as many of these workers as possible $600 in payment,” Vilsack said on a call with reporters. “So I think the amount of people that the groups and organizations represent may very well determine the level and extent to which they get assistance…We’re going to see how far we can stretch this $700 million.” By distributing the money through unions and advocacy groups, the logic goes, payments have the potential to reach more people. The application process will require grantees to prove they can connect with the intended beneficiaries.
The total funding set aside for the grant program is a fraction of what the federal government has disbursed to business owners in pandemic-related aid. In April 2020, USDA announced plans to distribute up to $16 billion to farmers and livestock producers impacted by the pandemic. On Tuesday’s press call, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), said he hoped Congress would consider appropriating more money for the Food and Farm Workers Relief program.
“America’s frontline workers and their families have sacrificed so much during this pandemic, and they’re counting on our nation’s leaders to act,” Perrone said.
Vilsack left open the question of whether undocumented farm workers will be able to access the grant funding. “Frankly, the pandemic didn’t choose between documented and undocumented workers,” he said. “I understand and appreciate that there may very well be other legal issues that have to be resolved, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to provide as much help to as many people as possible.”
“I don’t think it’s enough. But I think it’s better than nothing.”
Organizations that represent or work with the program’s intended beneficiaries have been largely positive in their responses to the announcement.
“The USDA grant program is a step in the right direction,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of the national advocacy organization Farmworker Justice. He noted that farm workers have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus due to their essential worker status, and added that low wages and the rarity of employer-provided health insurance compounded farm workers’ vulnerability to the virus — as has undocumented workers’ fear that reaching out for assistance could lead to deportation.
“Six hundred dollars could be huge,” said Eric Reeder, president of UFCW Local 293 in Nebraska, which represents an estimated 5,000 or 6,000 meatpacking plant workers, many of whom fell behind on rent and other payments during the pandemic. Employers in many cases provided up to two weeks of Covid-related sick leave, he said, but many workers were infected more than once or had to miss work to care for sick family members. “I don’t think it’s enough. But I think it’s better than nothing,” he added.
Put another way, the $600 figure is equivalent to one week of expanded federal unemployment benefits sent to people who lost their jobs early in the pandemic. If the program does succeed in reaching undocumented workers, the payments will still fall far below the $3,200 in total direct stimulus payments sent to most adults in 2020 and 2021.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in the plants in getting money out to employees. They just don’t have a good track record in handling payroll issues.”
Vilsack cautioned that the payments could take a year or even two to find their way to the intended beneficiaries. Farm and meatpacking workers are notoriously difficult to reach, but Reeder, the Nebraska union representative, applauded the administration’s decision to distribute the money through advocacy groups and unions instead of employers. “I don’t have a lot of faith in the plants in getting money out to employees,” he said. “They just don’t have a good track record in handling payroll issues.”
The success of this program will hinge on the ability of grant recipients to funnel the money to intended workers, many of whom have been left out of other relief programs. Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation, which pushed for the new relief program, said that while government has doled out billions in pandemic-related aid to agricultural businesses over the past year and a half, the new relief fund will give much-needed aid to those “who are the backbone of the industry.”
“Farm workers need the basic protections and the safety net protections that will allow them to thrive,” Tellefson Torres said, “and the fact that they’re putting their lives at risk every day to feed this nation needs to be taken into account.