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Treat Health-Care Workers Like the Heroes They Are
By Ruth Faden
Washington Post | April 22, 2020

“Like the first responders who faced death and physical injury after 9/11, today’s health-care workers are risking their lives and health to ensure their fellow Americans have the best possible chance to survive covid-19. Americans express their gratitude by applauding and banging pots, putting up signs and leaving food and flowers. Let’s go further and enact a Covid-19 Heroes Fund.”

Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
New York Times | April 14, 2020
We have been a hard nation to change. This moment combines the fear of mortality, it combines the fear of losing our money and it combines the fear of losing our community. And those fears, suffered long enough, may just have the impact of creating an antibody that will be a moral revival in this country in which all of us come together.

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“I have some strange hope that out of all this pain will come a new context in which America, with all of our divisions, with all of our past, will make some decision about how we restart that doesn’t just accept normalcy. This pandemic is saying to us that the old normal would be a waste, that it would dishonor all the people who have died and who have sacrificed to save lives. The old normal would mean that the people we deemed essential workers still lack health care, still lack living wages and sick leave. No. We sent you into battle without armor, so to speak, and you fought for us — now we have to change that.”

We Are Living In A Failed State
By George Packer
The Atlantic | June 2020

“We now have two categories of work: essential and nonessential. Who have the essential workers turned out to be? Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers. Doctors and nurses are the pandemic’s combat heroes, but the supermarket cashier with her bottle of sanitizer and the UPS driver with his latex gloves are the supply and logistics troops who keep the frontline forces intact.”

The Essential Workers Project

A collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and
the University of Colorado Boulder’s Masters of the Environment program

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines shuttered non-essential businesses, threw many non-essential workers into furlough or unemployment, and sent others home to perform their work.  However, as business districts and commuter highways emptied, essential workers are still venturing out and reporting for duty.  They are faced with “business as usual” in a time that is anything but.

COVID-19 has forced governments around the United States and across the globe to state the obvious – some workers in our society are seen as essential, others are not.  Medical providers, police officers, sanitation workers, transportation workers, food chain workers – these are the people we rely upon always and need more than ever when faced with disaster, especially a pandemic.

The irony is that many essential workers are not ordinarily treated as such. Many categories of essential workers generally earn low wages, receive few benefits, have negligible financial security, and have, at best, a limited political voice. In other words, essential workers are, too often, undervalued and socially marginalized.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers are assuming personal risks for the common good.  When they show up and do their jobs – sometimes without adequate protections in the workplace –  essential workers are risking a serious or even fatal COVID-19 infection.

Imagine what would happen if they didn’t shoulder this burden on our behalf:

  • If farmworkers don’t show up, fruits and vegetables will go unharvested, extending the temporary supply dysfunction experienced this spring into many lean months ahead.
  • If grocery clerks don’t show up, most of us would be unable to access food to sustain ourselves and our families.
  • If sanitation workers don’t show up, our neighborhoods would be burdened with trash, making for a breeding ground for plagues and pathogens..
  • If nurses don’t show up, our loved ones would suffer and perhaps even die entirely alone.

In many cases, we literally owe essential workers our lives. Because our well-being depends upon them, we must now become more aware of the inherent vulnerabilities they face. We must do the essential work of protecting at-risk essential workers.

How We Can Protect Essential Workers

Protecting essential workers – and, in turn, protecting ourselves —  begins with providing adequate protections and precautions in the workplace.  At a minimum, they need  access to PPE and to environmental and social controls that reduce their risks of viral exposure. They also need safe places for their children and dependents while they are at work.  But the necessary protections don’t end there. They also need terms of employment that reduce rather than increase their risks. For example, they need paid sick leave, permission to take time off when they have or suspect they may have COVID-19, and freedom from retaliation when they raise safety concerns.  Furthermore, many essential workers also face non-workplace hazards related to housing, childcare, transportation, food securty, and healthcare access that need to be identified and remedied. For example, they may need access to safe out-of-home group childcare or low-density housing to support preventative isolation and decrease their family’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Baseline Vulnerabilities of Essential Workers in the Age of COVID-19

But there’s more to the story of essential workers.  Many of these groups of workers experienced significant disadvantages prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.  Many are poorly paid.  Some have limited or no access to health care, live within inadequate housing, and are subject to inadequate pay and financial instability.  Many are members of immigrant communities and racial groups who experience systemic social and economic disadvantage.

These background factors and vulnerabilities leave these workers especially vulnerable during the current pandemic and amplify the risks that they face when they attempt to do job that benefit us all. For example, many farmworkers live together in substandard housing and travel long distances to remote worksites in tightly packed vehicles. Many have poor health, and their workplace exposes them to dangerous materials (e.g. agrochemicals) that result in high rates of respiratory illness in this population. Finally, some are ineligible, because of immigration status, to receive COVID-19 economic aid and social services.

A Moral Awakening to Essential Workers

If we want to keep our essential health care, food, sanitation, transportation, and emergency services systems strong during this pandemic, then we need to protect the workers who are essential to the functioning of those systems.

We need to ask ourselves, is it right to inflict such risk upon them so that we can stay at home? And is it smart to allow essential workers to continue to do their work under conditions that put us all at risk?

The low pay, poor benefits, and social marginalization of many essential workers also send a message of not respecting the dignity of their efforts, yet another reason why how we treat essential workers is a moral issue and a social justice issue. During the current pandemic, we are being provided with more clarity about their situation and the opportunity for us to recognize and act upon our collective obigations toward essential workers.

So, we are faced with an important moral question: What is owed to the people who perform essential work?   Moreover, how do we work toward a reality where these workers are no longer living on the margins of society and treated equitably?

The COVID-19 pandemic, as terrible as it is, is an opportunity to set things right.  That includes our treatment of essential workers.

Essential Food System Workers

Brief intro copy

Briefing Books

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Position Papers

Essential, Not Dispensible: Meat Processing Workers Are Owed Meaningful Protections

By Nicole Civita and Ruth Faden

“On a regular day, we work shoulder-to-shoulder for hours and only get two 15-minute breaks a day and a half-hour for lunch. We wear the same gloves and masks all day unless they rip, and we don’t have time to wash our hands regularly.” – an anonymous Smithfield worker

The meat processing sector prioritizes efficiency over resilience and profits over worker protections. Tested by the coronavirus, it is now in crisis. Roughly 5,000 meat processing employees have already been hospitalized because of COVID-19; at least 20 have lost their lives. Over 100 federal meat inspectors have fallen ill and two have died. Twenty-one major meat plants have shuttered for deep cleaning.

In April, with a stroke of his pen, President Trump used the Defense Production Act to declare meatpacking plants critical infrastructure, obligating them to remain open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump’s expansive use of the DPA to mobilize the industrial meat sector contrasts sharply with his reticence to use this power to mandate production of items that are life-saving and critical to relaxing social distancing, like  ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and testing supplies.

Workers and their representatives are vocal about the risks of the President’s action, with some calling it a “death sentence.” But Mr. Trump made only a glancing reference to their well-being. He noted that processors will continue to follow the latest CDC and OSHA guidelines, but stopped short of making these measures compulsory. Relying on OSHA to protect meat packing workers, however, is a poor bet. OSHA has taken a shockingly hands-off approach, deferring to employers on investigating COVID-19 claims, and waiving COVID record keeping requirements.

Bottom line, re-opening these plants means many more workers will become infected and some will die. Even prominent Trump allies acknowledge this eventuality. For example, while Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds asserted that her state’s meat facilities are essential, she admitted that “Once the virus is introduced into [a plant] it’s very difficult to contain.” The National Farmers Union responded that the “health and lives [of processing workers] are not an acceptable tradeoff for our meat supply, nor are these things mutually exclusive – we must find solutions that protect both.”

We agree. Sacrificing the meat processing workforce is not only patently unethical, but also shortsighted. These workers are both essential and very difficult to replace. Slaughtering and butchering takes skill and is not the kind of job many Americans can or want to do. If the goal is a viable food supply chain, these essential workers need to be healthy now and in the future.

What would an ethical path to reopening plants look like? At a minimum, the order to operate all meat and poultry processing facilities must be matched with a suite of protective measures. These include enforceable emergency workplace safety regulations; expanded testing, contact tracing and isolation of all potentially exposed workers; independent oversight of worker safety; recruitment and training of relief workers; clear reporting mechanisms; and robust whistleblower protections.

Meat processing workers must also have meaningful access to healthcare. They need paid sick leave to take time off if they are exposed to or become ill with COVID-19. Given the risks they assume, serious consideration should be given to hazard pay of at least time-and-a-half.

Additionally, protective measures must extend beyond the workplace and include the communities around meat processing plants experiencing COVID outbreaks. For example, children and other dependents need COVID-19 appropriate caregiving services, places to isolate when exposed, and ways to avoid exposure while commuting.

Regrettably, many workers will be disabled and some will die as a result of this order. We must swiftly establish funds to provide disability compensation and death benefits. And protections and benefits must be provided to all meat and poultry processing workers, regardless of their immigration status.

President Trump may have ordered the plants open, but he won’t be able to make workers walk through the doors. Consumers who want to continue consuming meat now need to fight for the people whose very risky and stigmatized jobs make their diets possible. So too, do the farmers, processors, wholesalers and retailers who profit from their labor.  Meat processing workers are essential and are not dispensable. Their lives matter.

Nicole Civita is Sustainable Food Systems faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder. Ruth Faden is founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Getting Groceries, Giving Care

Media Coverage


Nicole Civita was a guest

Essential Health Care Workers

Brief intro copy

Briefing Books

  • PDF will go here

Position Papers

Treat Health-Care Workers Like the Heroes They Are
By Ruth Faden
Washington Post | April 22, 2020

Media Coverage

On MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports, Ruth Faden discussed the creation of a Healthcare Heroes Compensation Fund for essential workers killed by COVID-19