COVID-19 And Farm Safety Is Dealt A Harsh Blow

The Lempert Report
January 21, 2021

Anyone want to be a farm worker?

As of yesterday, we have a new administration and a new head of the USDA, and the breaking news each day has overshadowed the news that in the waning days of the last administration the USDA diverted $1.5 billion in grants and loans for COVID-19 safety needs on the farm to a food box program. This gets even weirder. It is actually Ivanka Trump who is quoted in the USDA’s statement. Ivanka Trump? What does she have to do with the USDA? Here’s what she said: “With over 3.3 billion meals distributed to families across this nation, I am proud to share that thanks to the Trump administration’s efforts, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has an additional $1.5 billion to continue to feed families in need, provide employment and support our small farmers. During these unprecedented times, this Administration will continue to fight for American families and will always put them first!”

The move did not go unnoticed. More than 70 congressional leaders signed a letter urging the USDA to prioritize funding for farmworker safety. The bipartisan letter points out that the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 directed the Secretary of Agriculture to use at least $1.5 billion to purchase and distribute agricultural products as well as to provide grants and loans to protect workers from Covid-19. “As the pandemic exploded over the past few months, farmers and farm workers continued to show up, do their jobs, and put food on our tables,” stated California Representative Jimmy Panetta in a release.  “…My colleagues and I will continue to work together on a bipartisan basis, not just to secure that funding, but also to ensure that the USDA does its job and uses that funding to keep our agriculture workers safe and our food supply secure.”

The announcement from the USDA in its final days under Secretary Sonny Perdue took legislators, advocates, farmers and laborers alike unaware; those who had worked together on language that farmers hoped would help reimburse them for costs incurred in 2020 for PPE, social distancing strategies, testing farm workers and safety engineering. It is getting harder and harder for farmers and their workers. Last year, New York, California, Minnesota, Hawaii, Washington, and Maryland took the lead in granting overtime pay to farm workers. As the law took effect a year ago on January 1, 2020, but there was a hitch. Workers would only receive time-and-a-half pay after they had already worked a 60-hour week, 20 hours higher than the threshold that governs virtually all other categories of employees in the United States. In New York, late last year, a state board convened to consider lowering the threshold to 40 hours.

The three-person panel, comprised of a former union leader, the president of the pro-business New York Farm Bureau, and a member appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, decided to keep the threshold at 60 hours this year, citing pandemic-related uncertainty. The board announced it will reconsider the threshold in November at the earliest. The average hourly pay for a farm worker here in the US is $13.99 according to the USDA. The average hourly wage for production and non-supervisory nonfarm workers across the nation is $23.51. Anyone want to be a farm worker?