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While the pandemic has brought financial uncertainty for Maine food workers of all stripes, the livelihood of farmers and farm workers has been especially volatile. Most farms have lost business from chefs as the restaurant industry has shut down, while many farm workers haven’t been eligible for unemployment benefits.
One Maine organization in Washington County has worked to address that gap.
Mano en Mano, an organization based in Milbridge that provides education and advocacy for Maine agricultural and aquaculture workers, began raising money for the Estamos Aqui Mutual Aid Fund last month. To date, the group has raised more than $80,000, with more than half the funds coming from grants from Maine nonprofit foundations.
As of Wednesday, Mano en Mano had distributed the funds directly to 363 out-of-work farm workers and their families, many of whom are migrant workers, for emergency assistance to meet needs such as food, rent and utilities during the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of folks have lost their jobs or they’ve seen their hours get reduced,” said Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano. “We’re really trying to make sure that those folks are having some access to financial support and economic development support while they’re not able to work due to the coronavirus.”
Mano en Mano — which was founded in 1999 and whose name is Spanish for “hand in hand” — partnered with organizations such as the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition and Maine Mobile Health to identify working families in need of assistance, Yaffe said.
“We’re placing priority right now to immigrants and farmworkers who have someone who is ineligible for unemployment or ineligible for IRS economic impact payments. We aren’t getting into the reasons why people aren’t eligible,” Yaffe said.
Most recipients of the aid were in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Hancock and Washington counties.
The group maintains a publicly accessible tracker documenting requests and distribution of funds.
Maine has seen an increase in migrant laborers since the 1990s, according to Department of Labor statistics. About 18 percent of roughly 15,000 farm workers in the state are migrant workers, according to 2015 data.
A growing amount of evidence emerging during the public health crisis has found that people of color have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 nationwide, due mainly to lack of access to health care and stark disparities in economic opportunity.
“Immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of our essential workforce, working on the front lines to keep our food supply chain running during this unprecedented crisis,” said Julia Brown, a lawyer with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, which provides pro bono legal consultation for new Mainers.
As part of the CARES Act, which passed Congress in March, the federal government began sending stimulus checks to Americans in April of $1,200 per adult and $500 per dependent.
But people who did not have a valid Social Security number — or “mixed-status families” in which only one spouse had one — when filing 2018 or 2019 taxes did not receive them, according to analysis from the National Immigrant Law Center.
Brown called the exemption of certain migrant workers from stimulus checks “a huge failing.”
“Everyone in this country deserves protection during this pandemic, regardless of status,” she said. “These hard-working families pay taxes.”
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