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Newsom's $42 Million in Aid for Flooded Farmworkers Is Actually Old COVID Funding

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An aerial image of a flooded town with partially submerged houses and cars in brown flood waters.
An aerial view shows a flooded neighborhood in the unincorporated community of Pajaro in Watsonville, on March 11, 2023. Residents were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night after an atmospheric river surge broke the Pajaro levee and sent floodwaters flowing into the community. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

At a press conference in the flood-stricken Monterey County town of Pajaro on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom talked up a plan, paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by United Way, to provide financial aid to farmworkers affected by floods and recent winter storms.

“There's not a state in America, not one state, no other state that does more for farmworkers than the state of California,” Newsom said. “I want folks to know … it's important to reinforce today, March 15th, the United Way was able to get $42 million from USDA, and they're starting to send out $600 checks for farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status.”

Newsom was not referring to a new program for farmworkers who are in financial straits due to recent flooding and severe weather. Rather, as KAZU, KQED and The California Newsroom have learned, Newsom was referring to a $42 million farmworker grant managed by United Way that was announced in October of 2022, and has nothing to do with economic hardships due to recent storms.

A white middle-aged man stands in front of press microphones with various uniformed officials standing behind him and a river in the background, with the far banks of the river visible in the distance.
Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference near Pajaro flooding after he toured damaged areas in Pajaro of Monterey County, on March 15, 2023, as atmospheric river storms hit California. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The existing $42 million grant was created to provide “a one-time direct relief payment of $600 … to qualifying frontline farm, grocery, and meatpacking workers for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the USDA’s website.

Newsom’s office confirmed the $42 million he referred to in the press conference was in fact from the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program, which is funded under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

When asked whether waivers would be granted to flood-stricken farmworkers who do not meet the pandemic hardship requirements, USDA spokesperson Marissa Perry reiterated that the FFWR program was specific to those suffering COVID-related economic hardship.

At the press conference yesterday, Newsom also said money from the $42 million in aid would be available immediately. “Those dollars start going out today,” he said.

According to Katy Castagna, president of United Way Monterey County, the application is not yet open in Monterey. And, of the $42 million, $300,000 has been allocated to Monterey County, which would amount to 500 cash cards worth $600 each.

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In a Zoom meeting on Thursday, Castagna addressed questions about Newsom’s reference to FFWR funds being available to storm victims. The $42 million grant, she confirmed, “completely predated the current winter storm situation.”

However, she acknowledged that there is likely significant overlap between flood-stricken farmworkers and those experiencing pandemic-related hardships. “The good news about this really is I think it's a pretty broad qualification for COVID impact,” she said.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Newsom said, “The administration is also pursuing additional supports for individuals recovering from January storms who are ineligible for FEMA assistance due to immigration status.”

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo described the community of Pajaro as “mostly Latino, low-income farmworkers and immigrants.”

Nearly a week after the county issued evacuation notices due to the failing Pajaro levee, residents are still unable to return home.

“We still have a packed shelter full of Pajaro evacuees,” Alejo said.

The displaced residents weren’t just forced out of their homes — they may be out of work, too: Tens of thousands of acres of farmland have been flooded in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys. Alejo says the fields will need to remain fallow for at least 60 days due to potential contamination from floodwaters.

“It's going to take months to regrow harvests on these fields,” Alejo said. “So we also need to get resources for those who don't have any other means to pay the rent, put food on the table and provide for their families.”

The town of Pajaro has a population of under 3,000 and is mostly Hispanic, according to 2020 census figures.

Alejo described area residents as “people who are salt of the earth, but the people who have the most to lose here. They have so little but have lost so much,” he said.

This story includes additional reporting by KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero.

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