The rapid spread of COVID-19, with confirmed US cases now nearing 100,000, is forcing the federal government to confront some stark realities. And not just the fact that it was woefully (and willfully) underprepared for an outbreak of this magnitude.
The coronavirus has made clear that some of the social and economic structures that have undergirded daily life for decades could collapse under the added strain of a viral outbreak. In one of the richest countries in the world, it should have never been normal that in the best of economic circumstances, one in nine households faced food insecurity, Black households held a dime of net wealth for every dollar held by white households, and more than 27 million people lacked adequate access to healthcare. But now, as the worst of circumstances threaten even the wealthiest and most well-fed among us, the federal government finds itself reckoning with what protections are required to prevent these structures from bottoming out entirely.
Notably, the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the US food system and the millions of workers behind it—and in the process, has underscored the need for the basic rights many farm and food workers have been fighting for all along.
What essential farm and food work looks like during a crisis
Current events have yielded drastically different outcomes for different sectors of this particular workforce. For example, many workers along the grocery supply chain, including those on farms and in warehouses and stores, are working harder to meet increased demand for household food purchases. But these frontline workers remain potentially exposed and otherwise susceptible to the virus themselves, and often aren’t provided access to adequate protection.
The farm workers our food supply depends on, a majority of whom were born outside the United States and are considered migrant or seasonal workers, are among the most vulnerable to the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus. As reported by Civil Eats, these “essential workers” are being asked to stay on the job, despite the fact that most do not have access to health care, and many are receiving little or no guidance on how to stay safe during the pandemic. Even if guidance were made available, the working and living conditions of farmworkers (often in employer-supplied housing) put them in frequent close contact with others, and employers may not be providing access to gloves or soap and water.
Food distribution workers are facing their own challenges. For example, long-distance truck drivers delivering loads of fresh produce and shelf-stable food to grocery and convenience stores around the country are now facing dwindling numbers of rest stops and open restaurants along the way.
Meanwhile, those working in the food service industry, including cooks, bartenders, and wait staff, have found themselves out of work altogether as cities and states shut down or restrict hours of restaurants and other food service establishments to protect public health. Already, it is estimated that thousands of restaurant workers have lost jobs, and that number will likely increase during the coming weeks as more restaurants are forced to close their doors.
Though the spread of the coronavirus has caused additional strain on the food supply chain, it did not create many of the underlying challenges that have left many workers particularly vulnerable to the consequences. On the contrary, food and farm workers have been fighting for better conditions and protections for years.
Farm and food workers were overworked, underpaid, and poorly protected before COVID-19
The US food chain, including food production, processing, distribution, retail, and service, is the largest employment sector in the country, employing more than 21 million people. That’s more than one out of every seven workers in the US.
No Piece of the Pie, a 2016 report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, documents the low wages and poor working conditions many food workers routinely experience: The food chain pays the lowest hourly median wage to its frontline workers of any other industry; as a result, its workers turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) at more than twice the rate of other industries. Significant wage gaps persist by race and gender, and opportunities to advance are difficult to come by—particularly for workers of color. Finally, high rates of injury make the food chain one of the most dangerous sectors in which to work: over half of all workers report they have suffered an injury or health issue on the job.
Farmworkers, in particular, are routinely exploited to enable the US food system’s reliance on cheap labor. As my colleague Rafter Ferguson wrote in a UCS report, Farmworkers at Risk: The Growing Dangers of Pesticides and Heat, the lack of current protections for farmworker health and safety dates back to 1930s New Deal legislation that excluded farmworkers from the rights and protections secured by other private sector workers. This legislation was designed to maintain white economic dominance in the US by exploiting Black sharecroppers in the Southern plantation system and preventing an accumulation of wealth by the descendants of slaves, and to this day underpins the economic structures of farming as we know it.
Though the need for better protections for food workers is made more visible by major social and economic disturbances, COVID-19 included, the fight for food justice has existed as long as these injustices themselves. Dismantling the policies and systems that disenfranchise workers throughout the food chain and restoring rights to a heavily exploited labor force is the work of organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Food Chain Workers Alliance, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, United Farm Workers, and United Food and Commercial Workers, among many others.
Pandemic protections for food workers should set a precedent
The fundamental asks from the farmers and workers of the US food system are basic rights such as fair pay, paid sick leave, and safe working conditions—things that are afforded to many workers throughout other sectors, and that the majority of us take for granted. Such provisions are critical to protecting the health and safety of millions of US workers.
The growing global pandemic is quickly making clear how fragile and dysfunctional our food system is behind the scenes, and how dangerous this is for all of us. As millions of us wonder how long we’ll need to stay isolated and how we’ll keep ourselves fed, our country is being confronted with a crucial opportunity to change the nature of this system once and for all, to make certain that our collective wellbeing does not depend on the systematic exploitation of hard-working and economically disenfranchised populations.
Though Congress just passed its third coronavirus response bill providing aid to businesses, health care systems, state and local governments, and individuals, critics rightly point out that many of the provisions, including one-time cash payments and extended unemployment benefits, may not be accessible to many undocumented and some documented immigrants.
Organizations such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance are responding by calling on leaders across all levels of government to guarantee safety in workplaces, including protective equipment, hand-washing breaks, and space for social distancing; paid sick days and access to free testing and healthcare coverage; overtime pay and hazard pay; the right to organize; supplemental income and other financial assistance; and protections for immigrants, among other things. Already, states like New Jersey are taking the initiative to pass their own legislation that includes undocumented workers in temporary unemployment programs.
This week’s stimulus bill won’t be the last that Congress passes, but it must be the last that willfully excludes entire populations of families and workers. If the federal government hopes to address the national crisis unfolding before us, it must ensure that our essential workers are equipped with essential protections that prioritize the health and safety of the people who keep us fed.