The darkest days of the pandemic are still ahead of us, as we head into the winter with a surge of cases and without a national strategy to address Covid-19.
It will be especially grim for essential food workers like farmworkers and meat packers who still lack basic protections in the workplace. They will likely experience hundreds more needless deaths. The impact of Covid-19 on these workers could also shock the food system, with potential disruption greater than what we saw in the spring.
Attention by the incoming Biden administration to its Covid-19 task force and to policy recommendations for 2021 is an obvious and important next step to protect these rural workers down the road. Meanwhile, food businesses don’t have an impetus to protect their employees right now.
Meat, seafood, and chicken processing workers will continue to work just inches from their colleagues on ever-faster disassembly lines. Employers will continue to avoid revamping ventilation systems, to decline installing protective shields between workstations, and to require workers to provide their own personal protective equipment. And these low-wage workers, most of whom are immigrant and Latinx, with few legal protections, fear of retaliation, and heavy dependence on what work they can find, will be unable or unwilling to push back for better working conditions.
Nine months into the pandemic, workers at the center of the U.S.’s multibillion-dollar food industries continue to be forced to choose between not working — and so being unable to put food on their own tables — and running the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 or dying from it.
That’s why it’s so important for states to act now to put in place emergency regulations to protect food workers where they are most vulnerable to the virus: at work.
In early spring, Covid-19 swept into meatpacking and poultry processing plants and farms. It’s since dropped from the news cycle, but it hasn’t stopped. While data about food and farmworkers are poor, estimates range from 73,000 to 210,000 food workers testing positive for Covid-19 and hundreds have died of it.
The deaths, the continued outbreaks, and the lack of data and regulation are both heartbreaking and unsurprising to occupational health and safety experts. These are the workplaces where tightly packed spaces, poor ventilation, high injury rates, few worker protections, and a lack of regulatory oversight collide. Many of the workers in food-related industries that we deem “essential” are notoriously exploited. Farmworkers, for example, have long been excluded from basic labor laws such as the right to unionize or minimum wage and overtime. And compared to other industries, few health and safety regulations protect food and farm workers.
Exploitation is the backbone of our food industry and Covid-19 has only exposed our disregard for the health and well-being of these essential workers.
Equally unsurprising has been the reaction from both industry and the government: blame the workers for their home situations and transportation exposures, while ignoring that essential food workers spend most of their waking hours where they still lack basic protections from Covid-19: in their workplaces.
New data show that spreading of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, occurs in the workplace. One study showed that the lack of national Covid-19 workplace standards and enforcement, and a lack of personal protective equipment for workers — as represented by complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — were correlated to deaths 16 days later.
Work is driving Covid-19 infection where I live, the Eastern Shore of Maryland. An early outbreak at local poultry plants hit the immigrant community hard. Our state’s health department still blames crowded living conditions and transportation for Covid-19 infections among essential workers — yet many of these poultry workers live in single-family housing, not crowded or shared housing. Outside of health care workers and schools, Maryland requires no information about occupation to help better understand where exposure is coming from.
Maryland, like 35 other states in the U.S., has no emergency regulation to protect workers. Fourteen states have emergency executive orders or emergency temporary standards to protect workers, including workers who process meat and poultry. Eleven of those orders are specifically for farmworkers, who have a long history of exclusion from basic worker protections. Some address paid sick leave or workers’ compensation, or require employers have a protective plan in place. Virginia was the first state in the country to promulgate a comprehensive temporary emergency standard for all workers. In the absence of federal leadership, other states should follow Virginia’s example. And should they want to do it, essential workers should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines.
By February, a national strategy requiring all employers to develop and implement infection control, expedite workplace case reporting and response, encourage worker involvement to be part of the solution, and increase production of protective personal equipment for workers is needed and recommended as part of the National Covid-19 Worker Protection Plan.
But doing nothing until then means untold preventable deaths. Strong emergency standards to protect essential food workers are needed now, well before any federal regulation might be approved. States can implement essential and much-needed protections that are more protective than a nationwide regulation.
Covid-19 has laid bare that basic worker protections like minimum wage, paid sick leave, and safety precautions on the job are not “worker benefits.” No worker should have to choose between surviving economically or getting infected and even dying at work.
Worker safety is sound public health strategy. And if we don’t help workers stay safe, we all are at risk.
Amy K. Liebman is director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network, as well as director of its Eastern region office.