A new program will help immigrant farm workers recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 virus. (Yadira Lopez/Malheur Enterprise)

VALE - A statewide coalition of organizations is rolling out a fund to help immigrant Oregonian workers who have lost wages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oregon Worker Relief Fund targets workers who don’t qualify for federal unemployment or other federal relief.

“These are the folks falling through the cracks and often the backbone of businesses that are being hit the hardest right now,” said Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, director of advocacy for the Latino Network.

The network is among organizations involved in the effort, announced in a news conference Friday, May 29.

The fund received $10 million as part of an emergency aid package passed by the state Legislature in late April. More than 100 stakeholders and advocacy groups devised the plan for getting the money to workers.

The effort will soon accept applications with the money being disbursed through more than a dozen community organizations scattered throughout Oregon. Workers must apply directly through a participating organization.

Euvalcree, an Ontario based nonprofit, is one of the organizations that will be accepting applications. The nonprofit has already begun processing applications in a pilot test of the electronic system created by the Innovation Law Lab to help distribute the funds, said Gustavo Morales, Euvalcree’s executive director.

Euvalcree has close ties to the Latino community in Malheur County and also runs an office in Hermiston. It’s difficult to estimate how many people will be eligible for the fund in Malheur County, Morales said. Statewide, the coalition estimates that about 74,000 may qualify.

The fund is open to anyone who is at least 18 years old, lost their wages due to the pandemic and is ineligible to apply for federal funds for reasons including immigration status.

Those eligible applicants will receive assistance for up to four weeks.

Workers must live and work in Oregon to be eligible. Workers who hold multiple jobs in two states may qualify, Morales added, as long as they are also employed in Oregon.

“Through word of mouth we’ve helped quite a few community members already,” said Roberto Gamboa, Euvalcree’s director of operations.

At Euvalcree, interested applicants may call the office at 541-889-3189 or schedule an appointment.

The fund is meant to serve a critical gap, said Gamboa.

Many workers who do not qualify for unemployment or other emergency aid work in industries deemed essential by the federal government. These workers often earn low wages, making them particularly vulnerable at this time, the Oregon Center for Public Policy noted in a report that called on Oregon to assist laid off immigrant workers.

Workers ineligible for aid pay about $81 million in state and local taxes annually, according to the report, and roughly one in 10 Oregon children live with a family member who is undocumented.

“This pandemic has exposed structural inequities in our society,” said Adriana Miranda, executive director of Causa Oregon, an immigrant rights advocacy group, in a news conference.

Oregon’s Latino population has been particularly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Latinos account for close to a quarter of the state’s COVID-19 cases yet only make up 13% of the state’s population.

Areas such as Woodburn, which rely on farm workers have seen high rates of infection. By some estimates, at least a third of the state’s agriculture workforce is undocumented and thus ineligible for unemployment benefits or federal aid related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the funding allocated by the Legislature the Worker Relief Fund has raised more than $1 million through individual donors and community organizations, said Miranda.

“We will continue to raise funds through the summer,” she added.

Meantime, Gov. Kate Brown announced a series of other steps the state is taking to support the agriculture industry.

The steps include:

• Covering the costs for farmworkers who must quarantine because of possible coronavirus, distributing more personal protective equipment and providing money to community groups that work with seasonal farmworkers. The state set aside $14 million for these projects.

• Providing $10 million to agriculture producers for hotels and other housing for farmworkers who otherwise couldn’t follow social distancing standards in normal housing. Producers can apply starting Wednesday, June 10, for costs dating back to May 11, 2020.

• Money to improve sanitation in farm fields such as more hand-washing stations and portable restrooms. The state has allocated $5 million for these costs and applications will be accepted starting Wednesday, June 10.

• Money to provide more transportation for field workers to allow for more social distancing. The state has allocated $1 million and applications will be accepted starting Wednesday, June 10.

“Times were tough before the pandemic, and they are much tougher now,” said Dave Dillion, Oregon Farm Bureau executive director. “This assistance package is a very important step toward helping Oregon’s farm and ranch families.”

“Ensuring farmworkers have access to the quarantine fund and PPE sends a strong message to essential workers across the state: You are essential and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), an Oregon group that supports farmworkers.

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