- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will provide $700 million in grants to help farm and meatpacking workers with pandemic-related health and safety costs, setting aside $20 million of this funding for at least one pilot program to provide support to frontline grocery workers.
- USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on a media call on Tuesday that workers would be eligible to receive up to $600 each to help them cover costs they incurred during the pandemic. These include paying for masks or personal protective equipment out of pocket, unpaid medical leave, childcare, or because the individual or a family member became sick.
- State agencies, tribal entities, and certain nonprofit organizations will be eligible to apply for grants from this program, with the money then being distributed to workers. Vilsack said it could take as much as two years for all the money to be doled out.
As the health risks and financial constraints continue to impact front-line workers, the new grant program aims to ease pandemic-related costs for farm and food workers.
“Many of these workers have had [to] — out of their own pocket — pay for masks or personal protective equipment through the course of the pandemic. Some had to take unpaid medical leave, whether it was to get vaccinated, whether it was to quarantine after coming in contact with somebody with the virus or perhaps it was because … a family member or themselves actually got sick,” Vilsack said.
The funding from USDA could provide an incentive for workers to stay in the food and grocery industries by giving them a much-needed financial boost. "The goal here is to try to provide as many of these workers as possible $600 in payments. We're going to see how far we can stretch this $700 million," Vilsack said.
For grocery workers, the pandemic has not only brought the threat of the virus but also posed new safety issues, like violence erupting over mask mandates. Since the pandemic started, at least 198 grocery workers have died and at least 43,900 have been infected or exposed to COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 1.3 million employees in meatpacking plants, grocery stores and other frontline industries.
The grant program announced by the USDA was touted by the UFCW as a long-awaited move toward helping its members.
"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," UFCW International President Marc Perrone told reporters. "But much more must be done in support of all meatpacking and grocery workers nationwide."
Perrone urged Congress to provide more funding for relief programs for frontline workers in grocery stores, along with those in meatpacking facilities. Perrone also noted frontline workers have pushed for higher wages and increased benefits during the pandemic. In an effort to retain and attract workers, especially during the labor shortage, the grocery industry has increased wages, bonuses and other benefits.
Vilsack acknowledged that the $20 million set aside for grocery workers is “probably not large enough to cover all grocery workers” and that most of the funding will benefit farm and meatpacking workers. “We wanted to create some kind of mechanism to acknowledge the important work that was performed by our folks in grocery stores as well,” he said.
Separately, the USDA said it will be announcing a separate $700 million suite of pandemic safety and response grants for producers, processors, farmers markets, distributors, and seafood processors and vessels impacted by COVID-19.