The onset of the COVID crisis has thrown our country for a loop and our industry along with it, but Western Growers farmers are rising to meet the challenge and here in Washington, DC, we are working to help you.
In March we engaged the Trump Administration and dozens of Congressional offices to ensure that there would be no impact on the availability of guest workers. As you may recall, State Department consulates closed because of COVID which imperiled the ability to process guest worker applications. Working with Congressional offices and then the Administration, we were able to build more flexibility into the system to help ensure that there was no impact on the processing of H-2A applications. More recently, Western Growers worked to help ensure that guest worker crossings continue unabated and helped add extra opening hours to border crossings to improve the flow of workers so that harvest efficiency could be maintained at a high level for our desert growers.
We know that many of you are running short on masks, gloves, and sanitizers so we have been working to secure resources for personal protective equipment (PPE). The House of Representatives recently passed a COVID package that provides tax credits for employers to help pay for PPE. The bill also provides money to pay for childcare for essential workers because many farm and packing shed workers face difficult choices about caring for their children with schools and day care centers closed. The Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently issued COVID related guidance from harvest through packing and processing for farm workers in the produce industry. As we have learned from large produce industry outbreaks that have already happened in Washington, Tennessee, and Florida, this guidance will become increasingly critical to ensure the safety of your workforce. While you work to implement this guidance, we will be working with the Senate to ensure that it too include funding for necessary supplies. As a special note, please go onto the Western Growers website often to see the most current worker safety material.
During late May, the Administration announced a direct payment program that is intended to provide farmers impacted by COVID direct financial support. Enrollment covers a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and is intended to cover losses incurred between January 15 and April 15. Payments are capped at $250,000 unless you have a business structure with partners in which case payments could be as high as $750,000. While this program is far from perfect, it could be a significant benefit to growers in need. Please reach out to your county Farm Service Agency office to get information and then file for support if your business experienced harm like lower prices, cancelled contracts, or you disked under product as a result of COVID. While we hope producers sign up, we are working now to improve this program. We are working to secure additional money for the program to potentially raise the payment cap to higher levels and we are looking to cover losses beyond April 15 into Q2. We are also working to add additional crops to the eligibility list. USDA didn’t have complete pricing data on dozens of fruit and vegetable crops so we are helping them secure that data in the expectation that additional crops can be added to the list.
Finally, we are also working with other business groups to try and secure business liability protection. That is a very contentious issue in Congress but we are hopeful that some type of liability shield can be provided to employers who are following CDC/OSHA guidelines for their employees. We are also trying to improve the Payment Protection Program by trying to increase the eligibility terms to businesses that have more than 500 employees as well as expand the list of eligible uses for the money beyond labor, mortgage costs, rent and utilities.
As this crisis continues, we will be responding to new issues as they arise related to it COVID.