Padilla Introduces Bicameral Legislation to Provide Disaster Relief for Farm Workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senators Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced the Disaster Relief for Farm Workers Act to provide compensation for farm workers who lose out on work and pay due to extreme weather, public health emergencies, and other disasters. U.S. Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.-18) and Andrea Salinas (D-Ore.-06) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

California is home to up to 800,000 year-round and seasonal farm workers who help power the state’s $59 billion agricultural economy, yet despite their contributions to the local, regional, and national economies, there are few protections for the farm workforce. The California agricultural economy faces $2.4 billion in damages from 2023 alone, and that’s before accounting for flooded farm worker homes in Pajaro or lost farm worker income. Existing federal disaster relief programs insufficiently compensate farm workers when they lose wages as a result of conditions out of their control.

“California’s farm workers labor under extreme conditions to help put food on the table for hundreds of millions of Americans,” said Senator Padilla. “But as farm workers in Pajaro learned last year after extreme flooding, and those across the country know too well, natural disasters can devastate agricultural communities. We must protect the beating heart of our nation’s food supply by providing critical emergency assistance to these essential workers.”

“Agriculture is the backbone of Colorado’s economy and central to our Western way of life, but as climate-fueled disasters become increasingly common, our state’s farm workers are paying the price,” said Senator Bennet. “The people that grow America’s fruits, vegetables, and other crops deserve assistance – especially after emergencies like drought, wildfires, or other natural disasters. This legislation recognizes their crucial role in our economy.” 

“When extreme weather occurs, farmworkers across the United States continue to help feed the nation. And yet, these essential workers and their families face great uncertainty when unexpected disasters cause them to lose work and income. In my congressional district, after severe flooding in early 2023, hundreds of farmworkers in the Pajaro community faced displacement and lost wages. They and all farmworkers deserve better. That’s why I’m proud to be co-leading the Disaster Relief for Farm Workers Act with Rep. Salinas and Sens. Padilla and Bennet. Our bill ensures America’s indispensable farmworkers can receive disaster relief funding they need and have earned,” said Representative Lofgren.

“As the daughter of a former farmworker, I am proud to introduce this bill to deliver much-needed disaster relief for the hardworking men and women who grow and harvest our food,” said Representative Salinas. “Climate change is only getting worse, and unexpected disasters can strike at any time. Yet despite their critical importance to our food system and economy, America’s farmworkers currently do not receive direct federal support when they are forced to miss out on work and lose wages as a result. This legislation would finally right that wrong and ensure that, rain or shine, our farmworkers and their families can continue to pay the bills and put food on the table.”

“Farm workers have long been excluded from federal disaster relief programs, even as they have been disproportionately impacted by extreme weather such as fires, flooding, and other natural disasters,” said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero. “The same way the federal government provides support to farm owners who lose crops, the federal government should provide support to farm workers who lose work. 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.”

The Disaster Relief for Farm Workers Act would address this problem by providing direct relief funding for farmworkers. Specifically, this bill would:

  • Make grants available to eligible farm worker organizations to provide emergency relief to farm workers affected by a disaster.
  • Ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and executes a promotional plan prior to and throughout the distribution of the relief grants to increase awareness of the assistance available.
  • Require USDA to work with eligible farm worker organizations.
  • Provide definitions for a covered disaster, eligible farm worker organization, and migrant or seasonal farmworker.
  • Amend Section 2281 of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 to allow for emergency assistance for farm workers.

The legislation is endorsed by the following organizations, in alphabetical order: Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Alianza Nacional de Capesinas, Inc., Alianza Poder, Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), Bienestar, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Campesinos Sin Fronteras, CIERTO, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Columbia Legal Services, Earthjustice, Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC), Farmworker Justice, Farm Worker Ministry Northwest, Farmworker and Landscaper Advocacy Project (FLAP), Food Empowerment Project, Hispanic Affairs Project, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Mano a Mano, Migrant Clinicians Network, National Employment Law Project, National Farm Worker Ministry, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC UNITED), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Congregational Leadership, Student Action with Farmworkers, The Foundation for Farmworkers, The Guatemalan Maya Center, TODEC Legal Center, Unidos Yamhill County, United Farm Workers, UFW Foundation, United Migrant Opportunity Services, and Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

Earlier this year, Padilla led a bipartisan coalition of California members in urging the Senate and House Agricultural Committees to incorporate permanent disaster assistance for agricultural producers and communities in the upcoming Farm Bill. The letter called for the inclusion of his bipartisan Agricultural Emergency Relief Act, which would create a permanent structure at the USDA to provide relief for farmers who lost crops due to natural disasters. Additionally, following Tropical Storm Hilary damage to California specialty crops last year, Senator Padilla hosted USDA officials alongside local leaders and growers to announce his bipartisan Fair Access to Agriculture Disaster Programs Act, which would waive the current adjusted gross income restriction that blocks producers who derive 75 percent of their income from farming, ranching, or related farming practices from receiving USDA disaster program relief. Last year, Padilla reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, legislation to update the nation’s labor laws to ensure farm workers receive fairer wages and compensation. He also introduced a pair of bills last year to help the USDA better meet the needs of farm workers.

Padilla has also been a vocal champion against the dangerous working conditions faced by workers due to an intensifying climate. Last year, Padilla and his colleagues led 112 members of Congress to call on the Biden Administration to implement an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace federal heat standard as quickly as possible. The letter urges OSHA to model the federal standard after the provisions in Padilla’s Asunción Valdivia Heat Stress Injury, Illness, and Fatality Prevention Act, legislation he introduced to protect the safety and health of workers who are exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace. He was also the first Senator to take up UFW on their invitation to work alongside farm workers for a day in the fields. 

Full text of the bill is available here.