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Gov. Newsom Touts $42 Million in Aid for Flood Victims – Turns Out It’s Months Old COVID Funding

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Pajaro, CA on Wednesday.
Jerimiah Oetting
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Pajaro, CA on Wednesday.

Of the $42 million, $300,000 has been allocated to Monterey County, which would amount to 500 cash cards worth $600 each. The money was intended to help farmworkers who were impacted by COVID-19.

UPDATED: 3:40 p.m.

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,” he said.

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.

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 (FFWR), which is funded under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

When asked if 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.

However, a text response from the California United Way service dedicated to the FFWR program stated: “In the coming months we’ll be sending out cash cards to eligible farmworkers in California impacted by COVID 19.”

The text message does not mention flood victims.

[UPDATE 3:40 p.m.: Shortly after this article was published, Monterey County officials held a Zoom meeting to provide storm updates. During the conference, Katy Castagna, the president of United Way Monterey County, addressed questions about Newsom’s reference to FFWR funds being available to storm victims. The $42 million grant, she confirmed, “completely pre-dated the current winter storm situation.”

However, she acknowledged that there is likely significant overlap between flood-stricken farmworkers and those experiencing pandemic-related hardships. Castagna added that the money “has not yet been claimed.”

Of the $42 million, $300,000 has been allocated to Monterey County, which would amount to 500 cash cards worth $600 each.]

When asked for comment today, 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 people 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.

With additional reporting by Farida Jhabvala Romero at KQED.

Jerimiah Oetting