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Food workers eligible for $600 stimulus

The stimulus will be available for two years after its commencement, but organizations like United Migrant Opportunity Services suggest applying as early as possible since the application process is first come, first serve.

Farm and food workers, including frontline workers at food processing, packing facilities, and grocery stores employees are eligible for a one-time $600 stimulus from qualifying organizations.

They must have worked sometime during January 2020 and when the U.S. ended the public health emergency last March. Essential food workers also must have incurred expenses during that time to be eligible. Rod Ritcherson is the spokesperson for the United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) and they are one of the organizations distributing this funding.

“During the height of the pandemic, the federal government deemed farmworkers and meatpackers as essential workers," Ritcherson said. "Now, farm workers and meat packers are an essential component to the country's food supply chain.”

Workers must have spent at least $600 in COVID-19 related expenses for items such as personal protective equipment, masks, testing, costs for quarantine, as well as child or elder care during the pandemic. 

"Because these workers were deemed essential, the federal government deems that it is essential that their costs be reimbursed for the hard work that they did and still do to put food on our tables every single day," Ritcherson said.

He said the program is important to recognize and compensate essential workers for their expenses and sacrifices, especially because these workers are some of the lowest paid laborers in America and are not typically reimbursed for loss of work. 

"When there is a drought, or when there is too much rain, or when there's inclement weather, through the USDA Farm Bill. The farm owners will get reimbursed because [of] the loss of their crops. Well, the farmworkers do not get reimbursed for their lost wages because they can't work because of inclement weather. So we are gratified that these essential workers are being recognized, and they have been recognized in a way where they are receiving some relief payment for the sacrifices that they've made that benefited all of us."

The stimulus will be available for two years after its commencement last March, but organizations like UMOS suggest applying as early as possible since the application process is first come, first serve.

"There were a lot of deaths, certain illnesses and deaths within the farm worker and the meatpacking community simply because at times before employers were able to adjust to this unprecedented situation," Ritcherson said. "There were some unsafe conditions, and because this population was considered essential workers, they had to continue to go to work every day. They did not have the luxury like some of us had, where we could work remotely.

"They had to show up to work every day, and in doing so, that presented a hardship and sometimes a financial hardship because expenses incurred were not reimbursed," Ritcherson said.

Cynthia Galvan, vice-president for social services for UMOS, said families are depending on checks to keep them afloat after a costly and lengthy public health emergency. She said they feel appreciated, but some are feeling pressure from costs.

"There is a need, that many of the families are, you know, dealing with food insecurity and housing insecurity and and just trying to stay afloat with everyday expenses," Galvan said. "So this is relief money is a token for them to be able to feel like they're not drowning anymore, that it's going to come in and and support them, even if it's just for a short period of time."

Galvan shares what workers she talked to were planning to spend their money on, or more importantly not spend it on.

"I was in Oklahoma, talking to some farm workers as they were waiting in line to apply for the relief. And I said just to strike up a conversation with them. I said, 'What would you be doing with this money once you receive it, if you wish to share?' and one of them said 'I'm gonna save it for a rainy day because rainy days mean we don't get paid'."

Leydy Rangel is the communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Foundation. She said many undocumented workers weren’t eligible for various forms of pandemic assistance.

"The vast majority of our workers did not receive paid sick leave, but were classified as essential workers during the pandemic," Rangel said. "Additionally, the COVID-19 Congress relief packages failed to provide pandemic assistance to millions of undocumented persons, many of whom pay taxes, and many of them who are farm workers. We know that at least half of the farmworker population is undocumented."

She also said unlike other workers who went home or quarantined at the height of COVID-19, food workers could not. Instead they had to work on fields, farms, or factories where they were exposed to the virus at the workplace, provided their own PPE, and were not always able to follow social distancing guidelines.

“Farm workers do not qualify for overtime pay at the federal level," Rangel said. "They typically receive low wages and they experience poor working conditions and so I think that assisting them through this program, giving them the $600, really is a thank you for all that (they) had to endure during the pandemic. You can't harvest an apple through zoom, and they can't stay home. They had to keep showing up, this is a way to show up for them now,” she said.

"We see this as recognition funding, recognition for the work that farm workers and meatpackers do. If you think, whenever you go to your grocery store, most people don't give any thought at all to how that food gets there. Well, this is recognition for the work that farm workers and meatpackers do to get the food to your grocery store, and they put food on our table every day. But what most people don't realize is that a lot of times farm workers cannot put food on their own tables."

Find more information on how to apply for the $600 stimulus and funding organizations here.

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Rachell-Sanchez Smith is an associate producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>