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Oregon Congresswoman introduces bill to provide disaster relief to farmworkers

U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas of Oregon wants farmworkers to be eligible for disaster relief money when they lose wages during disasters and public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic or 2021 heat wave that killed more than 100 Oregonians.

Salinas, a Democrat who represents the 6th Congressional District, has introduced a bill, called the “Disaster Relief for Farm Workers Act,” that would compensate farmworkers for lost earnings due to events beyond their control that are tied to extreme weather and public health. The bill’s intent is to help a vulnerable but critical segment of Oregon’s population that works for low wages, often housed in tight quarters with no financial safety net to rely upon when disasters strike.

Oregon has more than 100,000 farmworkers, many of them living in the Willamette Valley. They are the engine that drives the state’s $5 billion agricultural industry, harvesting fruit, tilling the soil and tending to livestock. A state study found the average income for individual farmworkers, including all sources of income, ranged from $17,500 to nearly $20,000 annually for workers in Oregon and Washington. Farmworker households in their entirety earn an average income of less than $25,000 a year.

An estimated 2.4 million farmworkers labor across the U.S.

“It would provide that safety net for farm workers who, as we know, live sometimes in really tight quarters or in really cramped conditions,” said Salinas, whose district includes Willamette Valley farmland. 

The bill would make grants available to organizations to provide emergency relief to farmworkers affected by disasters. Those organizations would dole out money to individual farmworkers and their households, with amounts based upon what the federal government provided. Dozens of farmworker groups and advocacy organizations support the bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Equity Commission recommended the bill’s concept. The idea came about because low-income farmworkers typically are not eligible for existing federal disaster relief programs, such as those that benefit property owners who lose their houses after a natural disaster.

“Farmworkers don’t get paid when they’re not actually working in the field, and there is no kind of unemployment insurance or any kind of safety net when they’re out of work for no fault of their own,” Salinas said in an interview on Thursday with the Capital Chronicle.

The cost of the bill, which could be launched with $50 million based on an early estimate, would be  determined by the House Appropriations Committee.

Democratic co-sponsors

The bill has co-sponsors in the Senate – U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Alex Padilla of California, both Democrats. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, is also a sponsor.

California, like Oregon, is a state with a strong reliance on migrant labor in agriculture. 

After he immigrated from Mexico in 1950, Salinas’ father toiled as a young child in California’s cotton and tomato fields before he became a San Francisco police officer. Migrant workers, often here on temporary visas, are the backbone of many agricultural operations in Oregon and across the U.S. But when disasters strike, they may leave because they cannot work.

“When times are even tighter and they don’t have any income, they’re at risk of potentially being rendered homeless, or they can’t put food on the table,” Salinas said. “I know our growers actually want to keep them here. So a lot of times, they feel like maybe they can’t stay here at all.”  

The bill would allow states to retain farmworkers in difficult times, Salinas said.

United Farm Workers, a California-based union that represents thousands of workers in dairies, vegetable farms and berry-growing operations in Oregon, California and Washington, is among more than 30 groups that represent workers and immigrants that support the bill. 

“The same way the federal government provides support to farm owners who lose crops, the federal government should provide support to farmworkers who lose work,” UFW President Teresa Romero said in a statement. “The Disaster Relief for Farm Workers Act will ensure that farm workers and their families can put food on the table when they are unable to work due to conditions beyond their control.” 

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