Kids, Families, and Food Workers Need a “HEROES Act.” Will Congress Deliver?

, Food Systems & Health Analyst | May 13, 2020, 2:27 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic

UPDATE, Oct. 22, 2020: In an effort to gain support from the White House and the Senate, the House passed a slimmed-down version of the Heroes Act on October 1. The new $2.2 trillion Heroes Act maintains many of the provisions described below, including a 15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefit levels, new safety requirements to help protect essential food and farm workers, and financial support for schools as well as local farmers and food producers. However, the new legislation omitted some important provisions, such as hazard pay for frontline workers facing greater COVID risk, that UCS and many other groups had supported.


 

Yesterday, House Democrats released the text of a new stimulus package: a blueprint for what could become the fourth major COVID-19 response bill passed by Congress.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act builds on previous legislation to respond to some of the most pressing challenges facing families, farmers, and workers during the crisis. And though it’s not perfect, it’s a marker of critical progress at a time when action is urgently needed. Just last week, new data showed that more than one in five US households is now experiencing food insecurity, with even higher rates in households with children aged 12 and under. Meanwhile, spikes in COVID-19 cases at meat and poultry processing plants across the country have demonstrated the dangers facing thousands of food workers and the dire need for health and safety protections.

So what did the bill get right, and when can we expect it to move?

The HEROES Act hits anti-hunger goals

As unemployment reached an unimaginable 14.7 percent last month (“literally off the charts,” per the New York Times), food insecurity rates have shot up, too. And while many sources of support can help families keep food on the table, the most effective tool at the federal government’s disposal is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Short of putting money directly into people’s hands (which the bill also proposes in the form of additional stimulus checks), it’s the most effective and efficient way to help households buy the food they need at grocery stores and local markets—with the added benefit of generating a ripple effect in spending throughout the economy.

That’s why public health and anti-hunger advocates have been asking for an increase in the maximum benefits available to households—and the HEROES Act delivers, boosting the maximum benefit level by 15 percent. (If you’re thinking, “Didn’t Congress already do this?” you’re not crazy. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act did allow the federal government to issue temporary emergency SNAP benefit allotments, which infused the program with an extra $2 billion in benefits per month. But that increase didn’t do much to help the 40 percent of SNAP households already receiving the maximum monthly benefit level, which are now insufficient in the face of greater financial strain.)

And this is big: Beyond the increase in benefits, the bill suspends three rules proposed by the Trump administration that would have slashed SNAP benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed and underemployed adults, forced families to choose between getting help with their utilities and their groceries, and put affordable school lunches out of reach for more than half a million kids.

Among other changes, the bill also allows the purchase of hot prepared foods with SNAP benefits and extends a new child nutrition program called Pandemic-EBT, or P-EBT, through the summer. Created by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, it provides additional SNAP benefits to families with children who normally qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and who may not be able to regularly pick up meals from school during closures.

At long last, Congress takes on food and farm worker safety  

The HEROES Act includes long overdue health and safety protections for essential workers across the food chain, including farmworkers who have historically been excluded from such protections and meat and poultry processing workers recently subject to an executive order declaring processing plants must remain open, despite mounting risks.

Taking its lead from labor advocacy groups such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance and HEAL Food Alliance, the bill requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) within 7 days of enactment of the bill that would create enforceable health and safety standards for workers at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. Put simply, an ETS enables OSHA to fast-track important health and safety protections when unique conditions pose grave danger to certain populations of workers—in this case, the people working in close quarters to produce, package, distribute, and sell our food. The bill would also help plants prepare for future outbreaks by making these standards permanent, requiring employers to “develop comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans, with the input and involvement of employees” within two years.

Yes, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) already provide guidance on workplace safety. But when it comes to populations of workers that have historically been exploited, such as farm workers—many of whom are undocumented and have limited ability to seek recourse for violations of labor laws—the operative words are required and enforceable. If implemented properly, the ETS should finally provide the information, equipment, and protection that these high-risk populations have been working without.

The HEROES Act also takes a significant step in proposing “pandemic premium pay,” which would provide essential workers with additional pay for performing jobs that are likely to increase their risk of exposure—even with the above essential health and safety protections in place. Notably, the bill explicitly defines an essential worker as such “regardless of the individual’s immigration status,” ensuring that all agricultural workers would receive the premium pay.

Migrant workers harvest lettuce at Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, CA on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013.

Schools serving communities get help balancing their budgets

When the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted schools temporary waivers and flexibilities to make it easier to get food to the millions of students who normally rely on free or reduced-price school meals every day. These flexibilities, like allowing schools to provide multiple meals at a time and to permit parents to pick up meals without kids present, allowed schools to more safely and effectively offer “grab and go” options to families who need them.

But adapting their operations to provide meals during a pandemic has come at a cost. Due to the high need in many communities, some districts are reaching deep into their own pockets to provide meals to adults, despite not receiving reimbursement for those meals. Back in mid-March, the Los Angeles Unified School District was already preparing 400,000 meals each day for the students, parents, and other community members showing up in long lines at distribution sites. Schools have also incurred additional costs to provide pay increases to staff who are risking their health and safety to show up to work, and in some cases to purchase additional equipment to meet unique food storage or preparation needs.

To help schools recover some of these costs, the HEROES Act would establish a reimbursement program that would provide additional funding for operational emergency costs incurred during the pandemic. Though it’s unclear whether the available funds will meet the mounting financial need of school districts around the country, the proposal is a step in the right direction. School food service workers may also benefit from a provision in the bill that promises prioritization of medical and protective equipment for both first responders and essential workers.

What else—and what next?

In addition to scoring wins for food security and worker safety, the HEROES Act would provide support for local and regional food systems, which have been swiftly adapting to meet community needs amidst major disruptions to the dominant food supply chain. This support includes additional funding for local and regional food marketing programs and projects responding to COVID-19, as well as Section 2501, an essential program serving farmers of color and military veterans who have been historically underrepresented and discriminated against in USDA grant programs.

The bill would also correct several major oversights of the last two pandemic response bills: firstly, it would amend the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to allow stimulus checks to be distributed using tax identification numbers, rather than social security numbers only—meaning eligible individuals can access financial support regardless of immigration status. And secondly, it would amend the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to require all employers to offer paid sick leave, striking an earlier exemption for employers with 500 or more employees.

However, continued support and additional changes will almost certainly be needed to help the many families, farmers, and workers struggling during the crisis. For example, the HEROES Act failed to authorize online SNAP use at approved retailers nationwide, or to include a plan to help small and mid-sized farmers and food producers who accept SNAP in-person to do so through online ordering and delivery models. In fact, of the funding and support the bill provides to farmers, very little is targeted specifically toward small and midsized farmers and food producers serving local and regional markets. The bill also doesn’t appear to address many of the logistical challenges facing school districts across the country, many of which are asking for additional federal support to streamline meal preparation and service. You can read more about our full list of policy priorities to protect US food and farm systems during COVID-19 here.

The House may vote on a version of the HEROES Act by the end of this week—but despite what may appear to be a short timeline, there’s likely a long road ahead. To date, neither House nor Senate Republicans have offered a similarly comprehensive proposal to support millions of struggling people, suggesting that negotiations between the two parties will be lengthy and contentious. If both sides of the aisle are able to agree on a final version of the House bill, all eyes will turn to the Senate. (If you forgot how this works, it’s never a bad time for some Schoolhouse Rock.)

Want to show your support for the HEROES Act? Keep following our blog, and check back on our website next week, when we’ll be amplifying asks for worker health and safety protections in both the House and Senate bills.

Anrita1705/Pixabay
U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano
Bob Nichols/USDA

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