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Farm and meatpacking workers could get $600 bonus from federal government

Down on the farm: A shortage of agricultural labor
Down on the farm: A shortage of agricultural ... 08:14

Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants who toiled through the pandemic stand to get $600 bonuses from the federal government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday.

The USDA is putting $700 million toward a fund for food workers, in recognition of the personal costs many experienced during the pandemic. Food industry workers fell ill with COVID-19 at higher rates than other workers; many had to stay home without pay or use their own money for personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

"They've often taken significant personal risk to make sure the rest of us can feed our families," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Tuesday. 

"Farm workers faced the impossible choice of risking their lives to sustain their own families," Diana Tellefson Torres, executive president of the United Farm Workers Foundation, told reporters. "Our call center fielded calls from farmworkers' families who were in hospital. Many of their employers did not provide them with paid leave when they were ill."

Around 1 million workers could be eligible for grants, assuming 10% of the funds are used to run the program. Workers will not need legal status to qualify, officials said. 

The money will be distributed through state agencies, tribal governments or nonprofits, and the USDA plans to go through a formal request for applications process for such groups to be awarded this money. The USDA is looking for groups with a record of working with hard-to-reach people, such as migrant workers, and that can reach the most people, Vilsack said. 

Food system workers, who can't do their jobs remotely, were hit disproportionately by COVID-19 early in the pandemic. A study of working-age adults in California published in June found that the food and agriculture sector had the highest rates of death from COVID-19. Another study published in the journal Food Policy in April concluded that the presence of a beef or pork processing facility more than doubled a U.S. county's per capita coronavirus infection rates. At least 260 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 50,000 have fallen ill, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The USDA funds are technically a reimbursement for workers who had to pay illness-related costs out of pocket, but Vilsack said he doesn't expect the grants to come with onerous documentation requirements. 

"This is not a situation where they'll have to prove they've expended resources — this is a reflection of the fact that in the pandemic they were at personal risk," he said. 

The USDA is also rolling out a $20 million program to reimburse grocery-store workers — an amount that won't come close to covering the nearly 3 million grocery workers in the U.S. Some labor leaders are pushing for Congress to appropriate more money for frontline worker pay.

A number of states have also implemented their own frontline worker bonuses. Texas and Florida are giving bonuses to teachers of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. Vermont gave grants of $1,200 to $2,000 for frontline workers. California and Maryland are giving stimulus checks to lower-income residents.

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