© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Hundreds of meatpacking, farm workers sign up for $600 assistance program

Clinton Dimambu
Zachary Oren Smith
Clinton Dimambu is a French interpreter working with Escucha Mi Voz to sign workers up for the the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program.

In January, $600 checks are headed to eligible frontline farmworkers and meatpacking workers for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inside the Johnson Street Catholic Worker House in Iowa City, meatpacking plant and farm workers lean in with Spanish or French interpreters. In a few weeks, the USDA will be sending $600 direct assistance checks to eligible meatpacking and farm workers. The agency partnered with activist group Escucha Mi Voz to sign people up for the assistance.

“It would pay a light bill. It would pay my water bill. It would make sure I have gas to go to work. Make sure my home doesn’t get taken away from me. That’s what it means to me,” said Monica Avila of Columbus Junction. She’s worked at West Liberty Foods for five years, part of the workforce that kept the place running during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says while the $600 isn’t a lot, it does meet the real needs for workers like her.

As of Dec. 22, Escucha Mi Voz estimated that 417 total applications had been filled out in the program's first three days.

In October, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Catholic Charities would receive $9 million to assist workers who were considered “essential” by states like Iowa and worked through the pandemic. Catholic Charities granted Escucha Mi Voz $1.3 million to fund a direct assistance program.

“In these critical times and this cold weather—especially during times of inflation—prices are going up for food,” said Benito Herrera Sosa of Washington, who worked at a pork facility through the pandemic. “This money is going to help me pay for a bill or cover the extra cost of food.”

In January, Escucha Mi Voz aims to assist 1,810 individuals through the program. Anticipating that many eligible applicants may need language interpretation services, it is offering application clinics across southeastern Iowa in Columbus Junction, Iowa City, West Liberty and Washington.

The USDA funding comes from the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program which provided approximately $665 million in Consolidated Appropriations Act funds to states, tribal entities and nonprofit organizations. The funds are targeted at qualifying frontline farm, grocery, and meatpacking workers for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa