Essential Food System Workers

Workers across the entire food system have long been underpaid and under-appreciated. But, as part of the pandemic response, many categories of food system workers were deemed “essential.” This designation exposes a cruel paradox: everyone relies on food system workers to meet their basic needs for sustenance in times of calm and crisis, but many food system workers do not have secure livelihoods and exist on the margins of society. With our collective dependence on food system workers laid bare, it is time to support these workers so that they can continue to labor for the common good and insure the security of the food supply. At the same time, we must also consider what we owe these workers and provide them with tangible support and enforceable rights.

Many of the jobs in the food system pay low wages, offer few benefits, and place workers in close proximity to each other or to the general public. Thus, many of these workers face common COVID-related risks. However, each worker’s ability to safely navigate these risks depends on factors that include:

  • the nature of their particular job duties;
  • the workplace policies, ethics, and accountability of their particular employer(s);
  • their ability to participate in labor organizations and the strength of collective worker voice; and
  • their level of social inclusion and the quality of their connections to the communities where they live and work;
  • their legal status, authorization to work and ability to secure alternate employment; and
  • their financial status and the number of other relying upon them for material support.

Because many food system workers were experiencing an array of intersecting vulnerabilities even before COVID-19 changed the nature of and risks associated with their work, they may be at greater risk for contracting the virus, experiencing its worst effects, spreading it to others (including co-workers), facing financial hardship, losing the ability to support themselves, and being pushed further to the margins of society.

To motivate and facilitate practically and ethically important worker-supportive action by public and private sector leaders, we have prepared briefing books that document the health risks and other vulnerabilities faced by essential food systems workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also propose important measures to address these risks. While these briefing books were created in response to the coronavirus crisis, they also point to the need for longer-term changes to address the underlying inequities that leave food system workers — and, in turn, our entire food system vulnerable.

Briefing Books

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.

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