COVID-19 Farm Bailout Funds Should Help Farmworkers, Not Big Farmers

Congress should direct the Department of Agriculture to use COVID-19 relief funds to ensure that farmworkers – not big farmers – have protections, free testing and paid sick leave.

Last month, USDA announced a $19 billion COVID-19 relief initiative, including $16 billion in direct payments to farmers. These new payments come on top of more than $14 billion in payments made to offset the effects of the Trump administration’s trade war with China and more than $15 billion in ongoing, annual taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.

Despite the surge in funding, USDA has not yet pledged to spend any COVID-19 disaster funds to provide growers or farmworkers with personal protective equipment or funds for housing and transportation options that will reduce the spread of the virus. USDA’s proposal is pending at the Office of Management and Budget.

So far, bailout spending has provided $590 million to farmers in the 100 counties with the most farmworkers, but there was no requirement that funds be used to improve worker conditions. Instead, the lion’s share of bailout funds flowed to the largest and most successful farmers.

The harvest season is about to begin, bringing thousands of farmworkers into the fields, but the Trump administration has so far refused to issue mandatory protections from COVID-19. Although some farmworkers are able to spread out in fields, many migrant and seasonal workers are housed and transported in ways that increase the likelihood the virus will spread.

Despite appeals from Congress, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the USDA has yet issued emergency standards requiring food and farm employers to meet safety guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, the Trump administration has ordered meat plants to stay open without requiring them to provide any protections, and has sought to limit the liability of employers. 

Many food and farm workers are not eligible for free COVID-19 testing. If they do become sick, many are ineligible for paid sick leave, increasing the likelihood they will infect their co-workers. The Families First Act passed by Congress requires some employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, but many food and farm companies are exempt from the requirement.

Although they have been deemed essential workers, farm and food workers do not receive hazard pay to reflect the risks they face. Because many are undocumented, many are ineligible for health benefits other workers enjoy, such as Medicaid. As a result, undocumented workers are not only denied hazard pay and sick pay but also lack access to health care, increasing the likelihood that the virus will spread as they continue to work.

To address these risks, the Trump administration must issue emergency standards that require employers to provide personal protective equipment, enough space to work without spreading the virus, and housing and transportation options that will reduce the likelihood of transmission.

What’s more, USDA funds should be used to provide hazard pay to food and farm workers – not a pay cut – to reflect the risks they take and to attract new workers as others become sick.

To reduce transmission of the virus among workers, all food and farm workers should be provided free testing, two weeks of paid sick leave – regardless of the size of their employer – and access to health care, such as Medicaid.

Because many food and farm workers are undocumented, these and other benefits, including state benefits such as child care and overtime pay, should be provided regardless of immigration status.

USDA should also take steps to ensure farm payments flow to farmers in need. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, EWG learned that most bailout funding has flowed to the largest, most successful farms – not to the family farms in greatest need of help. Between August 2018 and October 2019, the top 1 percent of MFP recipients collected 14 percent of all MFP funds, with 6,000 farmers each harvesting more than $300,000. One farmer, Smith & Sons in Texas, received $2.3 million. Another, Deline Farms in Missouri, received $2.2 million.

By contrast, the bottom 80 percent of MFP recipients – or about 500,000 farmers – each received about $7,000 in the same time period.

Unlike with hunger or housing assistance programs, millionaires can still receive MFP payments (and other farm subsidies). Trump’s USDA chose to retain the same meager “means” test that applies to most farm subsidies – that farm couples can receive payments so long as their annual average net income does not exceed $1.8 million. The agency also did nothing to close loopholes that allow distant relations or silent partners to collect subsidies, regardless of whether they live or work on the farm.

As a result, EWG keeps finding city dwellers on the list of MFP recipients. Even Trump campaign advisors and billionaires are cashing in. But instead of supporting limits to ensure that funds flow to farmers in need, some legislators are pushing to lift limits and increase funding for COVID-19 relief.

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