11/7/22, 8:36 AM

Exclusive: Congolese Residents Never Notified of Direct Assistance Program

Exclusion Highlights On-going Structural Barriers to Access In Local Government Safety Net

Hundreds of French-speaking, second-shift, Congolese meatpacking plant workers and food processing plant workers living in Johnson County, Iowa were never notified about the Johnson County Direct Assistance Program and did not have equal access to the potentially life-saving $1,400 pandemic relief checks, a new Escucha Mi Voz census of farm and food workers has found.

Over a dozen directly impacted Congolese workers attended Johnson County’s public 2024 budget hearing this morning to give public comment and request an additional $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for a second round of Direct Assistance Program checks for left-out communities.

One worker, Maurice Batubenga, was able to give public comment and said:

“I am Congolese and I work at Tyson Foods. I was diagnosed with Covid-19 in 2020. I heard that Johnson County paid $1,400 to negatively impacted workers but my community and I were not aware of that. So during your budget decision, I would like to see if it would be possible for my community to get that money too.”

Escucha Mi Voz Iowa members identified the issue as part of a Farm and Food Worker Relief census with Catholic Charities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group will distribute $1.3 million to 1,800 farm and food workers early next year. Hundreds of Congolese refugees living in Johnson County work at Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction and Cole's Quality Foods in North Liberty.

“Leaving out hundreds of Congolese workers from the Johnson County Direct Assistance Program may not have been intentional discrimination, but the lack of a relationship with and targeted outreach to these communities led to an unequal disparity in access and outcomes that must be remedied,” said Claire Lewandowski, a Catholic Worker and Escucha Mi Voz member. Several workers who attended today's budget work session attempted but were not able to give public comment.