Food and farm workers who’ve suffered financially from the COVID-19 pandemic will now be able to get help from the Department of Agriculture through grant funds totaling $700 million.

The new Farm and Food Workers Relief (FFWR) grant program, funded from the fiscal 2021 consolidated appropriations bill, is designed to help pay farm and food workers who have had to pay out of pocket for personal protective equipment like masks, or expenses such as childcare or sick leave, according to USDA, which announced the program Tuesday .

“Some have had to take unpaid medical leave," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters on a teleconference. "Whether it was to get vaccinated, whether it was to quarantine after coming in contact with somebody who had the virus, or perhaps it was either a family member or themselves got sick.”

Nonprofits representing farm and food workers, as well as state agencies and tribal entities may apply for the grant funding. Grants could total anywhere from $5 million to $50 million and must prove a connection directly or indirectly to “hard-to-reach worker populations” in need of the funding .

Diana Tellefson Torres, United Farmworkers Foundation executive director, said on the same call that throughout the pandemic, her organization received inquiries from farm workers struggling with COVID impacts and requesting financial relief.

“To this day, farm workers continue to inform our outreach staff in states like California, Washington, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona that many of their employers would not provide them with sick pay when they were ill, nor personal protective equipment,” she said.

When asked about whether workers who do not have legal status would be eligible, Vilsack did not have an immediate answer but shared his views.

“Frankly, the pandemic didn’t choose between documented and undocumented workers,” Vilsack said. “There may very well be other legal issues that have to be resolved but I’m hopeful we are able to provide help to as much people as possible.”

USDA said “eligible entities must demonstrate the capacity to reimburse farmworkers and meatpacking workers for up to $600 for expenses incurred due to the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” to qualify for funding.

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Vilsack said he expects applications will begin to be accepted “in the next couple of weeks” and the application period would be open for 60 days. He also said it could take up to two years to distribute all of the grant money.

The department is also allocating $20 million in funding for a pilot program to help grocery store employees who continue to deal with effects of Covid.

Marc Perrone, president of United Farm and Commercial Workers International Union, thanked Vilsack for launching the pilot program.

“This is a strong step toward providing them with the assistance that they and their families need as they continue to serve our communities in supermarkets nationwide and meatpacking plants despite the ongoing covid health risks that they face,” Perrone said.  

Since the pandemic hit the food industry early last year, UFCW said 483 frontline workers have died from COVID-19 and 93,900 have been infected or exposed. About 22,400 meatpacker employees have been infected or exposed and 132 have died. Over 13,000 food processing employees have been exposed or infected and 67 have died.

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