United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in announcing $700 million in relief funding for food industry workers to help cover pandemic-related health and safety costs.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the new Farm and Food Workers Relief (FFWR) grant program Tuesday in a press call with UFCW International President Marc Perrone and United Farm Workers Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres. The funds are aimed at defraying costs to farm, meatpacking and frontline grocery workers for “reasonable and necessary” personal, family or living expenses incurred due to COVID-19, such as costs for personal protective equipment (PPE), dependent care, and quarantine- and testing-related expenditures.
Also, USDA noted that $20 million of the $700 million has been set aside for at least one pilot program to support grocery workers and test options for reaching them in the future. These funds “recognize the essential role and costs borne by frontline grocery workers,” the department said.
The FFWR program is funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and is part of USDA’s $4 billlion “Build Back Better” initiative to bolster and transform the nation’s food system in the wake of supply chain disruptions triggered by the pandemic.
“We recognize that our farmworkers, meat packing workers and grocery workers overcame unprecedented challenges and took on significant personal risk to ensure Americans could feed and sustain their families throughout the pandemic,” Vilsack said in the press conference. “They deserve recognition for their resilience and financial support for their efforts to meet personal and family needs while continuing to provide essential services. This grant program is another component of this administration’s efforts to ensure assistance to alleviate the effects of the pandemic is distributed to those who need it most.”
Funds will be awarded through grants to state agencies, tribal entities and nonprofits serving farm workers and meatpacking workers ranging from $5 million to $50 million, USDA reported. The $20 million earmarked for the grocery worker pilot will be administered separately. Eligible entities must demonstrate the capacity to reimburse workers for up to $600 for expenses related to COVID-19, the department said, adding that it encourages grant applications that demonstrate “trusted communications networks” with farm, meatpacking and/or grocery workers as well as strong financial controls.
“As the largest union for America’s essential food workers, UFCW applauds the Biden administration and Secretary Vilsack for investing in these critical programs that will support the brave men and women in meatpacking plants and grocery stores keeping our food supply chain strong as the pandemic continues,” UFCW’s Perrone said in the call.
Since the pandemic started in early 2020, 483 UFCW member workers have died from COVID-19 and at least 93,900 have been infected or exposed, according to the union, whose total membership tops 1.3 million workers. Those figures include 198 deaths and 43,900 infections or exposures among grocery workers, 132 deaths and 22,400 infections or exposures among meatpacking workers, and 67 deaths and 13,100 infections or exposures among food processing workers.
“Meatpacking plants experienced some of the most deadly COVID-19 outbreaks when the pandemic first began, and there are few workers more deserving of our thanks and support,” Perrone explained. “Across the country, meatpacking workers have had to use their own money to pay for personal protective equipment to stay safe on the job, shoulder the burden of increased child care costs, take on expenses from COVID-19 testing and quarantining, and much more. Grocery workers continue to face health risk during this COVID-19 Delta surge, and the pilot program announced today is a strong step toward providing them with the assistance they and their families need.”
USDA added that it also will soon announce aother $700 million package of pandemic safety and response grants for producers, processors, farmers markets, distributors, and seafood processors and vessels affected by COVID-19.
“Let us not forget the sacrifices farm workers made as essential workers in order to keep our food supply intact during the pandemic. And as we honor the contributions of workers across our nation, let’s show gratitude to the men and women who feed America and the world,” UFW Foundation’s Tellefson-Torres said. “The UFW Foundation worked tirelessly to advance legislation that would empower USDA to support farm workers throughout this pandemic. We now applaud the Biden-Harris administration, Secretary Vilsack and USDA for recognizing the vital role of farm workers in the nation’s food security and economy, through this new program. The work is not done until this much-needed pandemic relief reaches farm workers across the nation, and we look forward to working with USDA to that end.”