Does the shift mark a new era at the agency—or is it too little too late?
Does the shift mark a new era at the agency—or is it too little too late?
September 9, 2021
Over the last year and a half, frontline food workers have faced significant COVID exposure to keep Americans fed and have received little in return. But help may be on the horizon.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it was investing $700 million in a new program that will offer $600 relief payments to individuals who worked on farms and in meatpacking plants throughout the pandemic.
“It’s important that we recognize that doing this essential work has also come not only with a potential physical risk, but also a financial risk,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a press conference. “While it’s important for us to give recognition to these incredibly hard workers, I think it’s also important for us to provide some level of support.”
The Farmworker and Food Worker Relief (FFWR) grant program will likely be the first to make individual payments to workers, and that makes it significant, say advocates.
“It’s important that we recognize that doing this essential work has also come not only with a potential physical risk, but also a financial risk . . . it’s also important for us to provide some level of support.”
“The majority of people who work in our food system are not actually owners or farmers,” said Navina Khanna, the executive director of HEAL Food Alliance, a nonprofit that works on labor as one component of a larger effort to build a healthy, fair, sustainable food system. “So, it’s great that the USDA is actually taking some responsibility for what happened to workers.”
Before COVID-19, workers across food supply chains—who are disproportionately people of color—earned the lowest average hourly wages compared to all other industries and often faced poor working conditions. The pandemic exposed those vulnerabilities: Restaurant workers lost their jobs en masse and grocery workers faced COVID-19 outbreaks for very little hazard pay. Farmworkers and meatpacking workers, many of whom are immigrants and guest workers, often live in isolated, communal housing, and already faced on-the-job hazards, were hit especially hard; data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network estimates that nearly 92,000 meatpacking, processing, and farmworkers have contracted COVID-19 and more than 450 have died.
One analysis published by the University of California in January found the risk of death increased by 40 percent for food workers in restaurants, production, and agriculture during the first eight months of the pandemic, which was the highest increase within the industries studied.
Under the Trump administration, the USDA focused its relief efforts on paying farm owners and addressing food insecurity across the population. By October 2020, it had already paid farmers $17 billion. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did little to protect food workers, even as outbreaks shut down meatpacking plants across the country.
“What we saw [during the pandemic], in regards to the actions of government and employers, was a real abandonment of workers in the food chain.”
“Overall, what we saw, in regards to the actions of government and employers, was a real abandonment of workers in the food chain,” said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, which released a report earlier this year on how food workers were impacted by COVID-19 and the organizing efforts they launched during the pandemic. “They were really left to fend for themselves.”
Now, Secretary Vilsack says that is changing. Lawmakers including House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott (D-Georgia) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) applauded the announcement of the FFWR grant program, while food labor representatives Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farmworkers Foundation, and Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International, joined Vilsack on the press call to express their support.
But despite this support, not everyone believes that $600 payments can make up for the lives and livelihoods lost. And it’s not clear whether the announcement signals a deeper shift in the USDA’s larger approach to food and farmworkers.
The USDA is using $700 million in funding from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to launch the FFWR grant program, with $20 million set aside for “at least one” pilot program supporting grocery workers. However, the bulk of the money will go toward one-time payments of up to $600 to “defray costs for reasonable and necessary personal, family, or living expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as costs for personal protective equipment (PPE), dependent care, and expenses associated with quarantines and testing related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the agency.
Those payments will be made by state agencies, tribal agencies, and nonprofits, which will have to apply to become administrators of the program. Vilsack said applicants will have to demonstrate their experience providing services to low-income workers and priority will be given to organizations that work with “hard to reach” populations. “In addition to being able to establish that they have experience in providing support services, we also have to be able to establish that they have the capacity to do outreach and technical assistance to get the word out,” he said.
The more granular details of the program are still being hammered out, but Khanna said the kinds of organizations that are selected to distribute the relief payments will be crucial in terms of the effectiveness of the program. “It’s going to be really important to make sure that it goes to grassroots organizations and organizing hubs that are based in community and have those relationships in place,” she said.
According to Vilsack, the USDA will publish a request for applications within the next few weeks, host webinars, and provide other technical support to applicants. “We’re hoping that the process to apply is not too complicated, because we’ve seen with similar programs . . . the complication itself can sometimes make it exclusory,” said Adely, who will help Food Chain Workers Alliance member organizations, many of which work with farmworkers and meatpacking workers on the ground, navigate the application process.
“People that worked on the farm and in meatpacking facilities put themselves at risk, and frankly the pandemic didn’t choose between documented or undocumented workers.”
The agency isn’t explicitly targeting undocumented workers, who make up a large proportion of the farm and meatpacking workforce and were unable to access previous federal stimulus payments (although a few states created their own stimulus programs). And yet, when Civil Eats asked Vilsack whether legal status would impact workers’ eligibility for payments under FFWR, he implied that undocumented folks will likely be included.
“People that worked on the farm and in meatpacking facilities put themselves at risk, and frankly the pandemic didn’t choose between documented or undocumented workers,” he said. “I understand and appreciate that there may very well be other legal issues that have to be resolved, and hopefully we’ll be able to provide as much help to as many people as possible.”
The program’s timeline calls the agency’s commitment to workers into question. Vilsack acknowledged that by the time the details are finalized, organizations apply and are selected, a year or even two may pass before the money actually gets to workers. And at that point, $600 might not sound like much of a lifeline.
But Khanna said it’s certainly better than nothing. “The reality is that so many farmworkers are in such vulnerable situations, $600 could make a huge difference,” she said. “It’s much later than any of us would have liked, but we’re glad to see that it’s coming.”
The fact that people are paid so little that $600 feels significant in the first place is the real problem, she explained. And it’s not clear whether the USDA will work to create better conditions for food workers over the long term. “For example, we’ve seen the ongoing battle around line speeds [in meat processing facilities], where USDA has continued to favor the big corporations and their profits over the lives of workers,” said Khanna.
“[The $600 payments are] much later than any of us would have liked, but we’re glad to see that it’s coming.”
Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order that reversed a USDA rule that allowed companies to speed up lines at poultry plants, and earlier this year, a court reversed another Trump administration rule change that eliminated line speed limits at pork plants.
Many advocates are also still disappointed in the fact that OSHA’s emergency temporary standard introduced under the Biden administration excluded food and farmworkers, and they say there are many other fronts across government agencies that will have bigger implications for workers’ futures.
On some of those fronts, the administration does seem to be moving toward a more worker-centered approach. For example, on Wednesday the White House rolled its announcement of the FFWR program into a larger briefing on the ways that the Biden administration plans to reduce consolidation in the meatpacking industry.
The briefing drew a fairly straight line between the concentration of power in meatpacking and the suffering of workers and small producers in a way that is rarely if ever done in Washington. And according to Politico, the administration has also shifted the leadership at the agency responsible for implementing the National Labor Relations Act in a way that could shift the balance of power toward workers and expand their ability to join unions.
That will do more than any single payment could, according to Adely, who said that the Food Chain Workers Alliance found worker organizing and union membership are the most powerful tools food workers have to reduce the risks they face, whether from “COVID-19, another infectious disease, or the impact of climate change or the economy.” For that reason, she adds, “We would like to see the government continue to go in the direction of protecting workers’ rights to organize.”
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