- The USDA will provide $700 million in grants to help farm and meatpacking workers with pandemic-related health and safety costs. The department said it would set 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 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.
The meat industry was among the sectors most heavily impacted from COVID-19 during the first several months of the outbreak last year. Unions, activists, workers and family members criticized the meat industry for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place.
The grant program announced by the USDA was touted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million employees in meatpacking plants, grocery stores, and other frontline industries, 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."
In June, meat packers were among the job sectors that failed to secure protection with a new Occupational Safety and Health Administration COVID-19 safety rule. The regulatory agency did not include the sector in an emergency temporary standard that required employers in high-risk industries such as healthcare to provide certain worker protections from COVID-19.
UFCW estimated more than 22,000 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed, with at least 132 dying from the coronavirus.
The animal slaughtering and processing industry employs more than 515,000 individuals, according to the North American Meat Institute, citing Labor Department statistics. The data shows more than 330,000 of those work in production occupations, such as production line supervisors and operating workers, food processing workers, and butchers and meat cutters.
Vilsack acknowledged while the pandemic has placed these and other frontline workers at a physical risk, the virus' impact on their finances shouldn't be ignored.
"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," the former Iowa governor said. "This is, I think, a reflection of the essential nature of the work that they performed during the course of pandemic."
The grants could provide a boost to a meat and poultry industry that, similar to other segments of the U.S. economy, is being impacted by a shortage of workers.
Meat and poultry processing is a challenging and physically demanding job. Workers in some cases are required to perform the same task over and over, or work with machinery, both of which can be dangerous, Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist, told Food Dive in June. Plants often tend to be located in rural areas close to where the animals are raised, increasing the difficulty for companies to attract and keep workers, he said.
The challenges have been amplified as some people are afraid to enter the workforce over fears of getting COVID-19. Economists also point out that recent stimulus checks and unemployment have provided workers with a disincentive to get a job.
In an effort to retain and attract workers, the meat industry has increased wages, bonuses and other benefits.
The funding from USDA could provide an incentive for workers to stay in meatpacking jobs by giving them a much-needed financial boost. This also could be a big win for a meat and poultry industry struggling to keep up with growing consumer demand for protein and an influx of visitors to restaurants. The average American will consume about 222.5 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2021, according to a USDA report released in August, compared to 204.6 pounds a decade ago.
Separately, the USDA said it will be announcing a $700 million suite of pandemic safety and response grants for producers, processors, farmers markets, distributors, and seafood processors and vessels impacted by COVID-19.