The workers that make your food put their lives on the line during pandemic. Whether they're protected now is up to you.
- The American food supply chain — from
meatprocessing plants to fast-food chains — relies on people working low-paying jobs that put them at risk for harassment, injury, and even death.
coronaviruspandemic forced this exploitation into the spotlight and allowed workers to make some gains, including paid sick leave and hazard pay.
- As businesses reopen, hazard pay is ending and hundreds of thousands of workers still do not have paid sick leave, except in COVID-19 related cases.
- Low-paid workers will be hit hard by the looming recession. If they're able to keep any gains will depend on how the American shopper votes with their wallets and in upcoming elections.
"Every day we risk our health and the health of our family that await us at home," said Nelson Santiago.Santiago was an essential worker on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic when he spoke to Business Insider in April. He had recently lost his job at Golden Corral due to the pandemic. And, he was about to quit his job at Wendy's because he did not feel safe going to work. Advertisement
Santiago's breaking point at Wendy's came when a corporate employee at his franchisee, Muy Cos., dropped off a bag of candy for workers. Santiago, who was making $8.50 an hour, did not want the candy or a thank you note. Instead, he wanted his bosses and the government to protect workers during the pandemic.
The coronavirus forced Americans to acknowledge who suffers to keep the country feed.We rely on a meat processing plants that remain open despite at least 15,000 workers catching COVID-19, with 63 dying. We shop at grocery stores where at least 68 workers have died and more than 10,000 have been infected. And we pick up drive-thru from chains that remained open as essential businesses, despite workers' fears of catching the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, these workers have managed to secure some basic gains — better sick leave policies, bonuses, and new safety practices. But, as businesses reopen, hazard pay is running out. In the looming recession, many of the workers that suffered most during the pandemic will lose even more, as low-paid workers' wages are expected to drop.As America reopens, employers, workers, and customers are seeing a "new normal." It's up to American customers to decide if workers are protected or if exploitation continues in a new era.
America's food supply chain was already broken for workersAdvertisement
The choice between safety and a paycheck is not a new dilemma for workers throughout the food supply chain.
Agriculture, fishing, and hunting had the highest death rate of any industry in 2018 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 574 people dying — 23.4 deaths for every 100,000 workers. Grocery store employees and fast-food workers report facing harassment, assault, and injury at work. And, hundreds of thousands of workers lack paid sick leave.These issues are more likely to impact Black and Latino workers, as well as immigrants. 44% of meatpackers are Latino and 25% are black, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. More than half of the meat industry's frontline workers are immigrants.Advertisement
Black and Latino workers are also overrepresented and underpaid in the restaurant industry. Restaurant workers of color make 56% less than their white counterparts, after adjusting for education and language proficiency, according to a 2014 survey by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
The stark dangers of the coronavirus pandemic forced exploitation built into the food supply chain into the spotlight."The pandemic is a crisis decades in the making," said Joshua Specht, a professor at the University of Notre Dame. "It would be difficult in any circumstances and coronavirus is a problem for societies everywhere, but the dynamics of the American workplace paired with the erosion of a safety net outside the workplace have exacerbated these trends."Advertisement
The coronavirus brought new dangers — and progressive change
As the coronavirus swept the US, so did workers' fears of infection. Meat processing plants, grocery stores, and fast-food chains became sites for protests over lack of hazard pay and personal protective gear."I am practically bathing in hand sanitizer," a McDonald's worker named Niki said in late March. "I fear that I'm a soldier on the front line, bound to be the first to fall. Over cheeseburgers."Advertisement
In April, President Trump signed an executive order requiring meat-processing plants to stay open to prevent meat shortages, as hundreds of workers fell ill. And, employers began rewarding workers that did come to work.As the pandemic stretched on and protests grew, companies began offering new safety policies and benefits. Fast-food chains, grocery stores, and meat processing plants began offering hazard pay and bonuses. Dozens of companies rolled out new paid sick leave policies for COVID-19 related cases, something that became mandatory for companies with 50 to 500 workers with the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Workers' demands and external pressure are inextricable from workers' gains during the pandemic. Throughout history, visceral safety concerns have served as workers' breaking point, forcing them to take collective action against employers, said Jay Shambaugh, an economist and director of the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project. Advertisement
"I think there is also a very different level of both anger and degree of boldness and willingness to take action because workers fundamentally see the impossible choice that a number of them have to make every single day," said Allynn Umel, the organizing director for Fight for 15, a Service Employees International Union-backed movement to raise fast-food workers' pay.
Benefits are running out
As nonessential businesses reopen, many of the gains essential workers fought for are set to vanish. Advertisement
Companies, including Starbucks, Dollar Tree, and Amazon, will stop hazard pay programs in the coming weeks. COVID-19 sick leave policies will remain in place, but few companies have updated policies to include cases unrelated to the coronavirus.
"Kroger ended our 'hero pay,' but the crisis is not over," Kristine Holtham, a Kroger employee from Lansing, Michigan told reporters this week. "I face each day with anxiety and it gets worse when I see customers refuse to wear masks. I am a mother and my children need me to stay healthy." Kroger's recently decided to stop its $2-an-hour pay bump, instead providing a $400 bonus.While on paper new safety measures should continue to protect workers, Specht warns against trusting companies to follow through. Advertisement
"People need to keep up pressure to ensure these protections are more than a fig leaf," Specht said.
Progressive organizers and workers see the coronavirus as the perfect opportunity to force employers to make progressive changes permanent. Many Americans are realizing for the first time that people who work in stores, restaurants, and slaughterhouses are essential to the country's survival."Wins that we can gain now, in this climate, are just going to help us build more power for permanent policy," said Nicole Regalado, the deputy director of the ACLU's liberty division, who is organizing a campaign to force McDonald's to provide paid sick leave. Advertisement
The political dialogue was already shifting to emphasize workers' rights and collective bargaining before the pandemic, Shambaugh says. The coronavirus could accelerate that process even more. With hazard pay gaining bipartisan support, proposals like paid sick leave and a $15 minimum wage could become increasingly accepted on both sides of the aisle.
The looming recession could rob workers of recent gainsThe pandemic is now coupled with an economic recession.Advertisement
As nearly 39 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, many Americans will be eager to take whatever job they can find.
As employment reached record lows in 2019, the lowest-paid workers in America were finally seeing pay increases. Now, Quartz reports that David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is predicting these workers' wages will be hit hardest in the recession.When unemployment is low, collective bargaining becomes significantly harder, Shambaugh says. When people are desperate, they will accept whatever job they can get, making it more difficult to push for better benefits or pay. Advertisement
Ultimately, it will be up to American shoppers if raises and paid sick leave are a short-lived solution to an unprecedented crisis or the beginning of building a food supply chain that is safer for workers.
"It's up to workers, their advocates, and their allies, to push for meaningful political change," Specht said. "But that won't be easy, in any crisis, there will be a push to say, 'we have immediate problems we need to address, no time to think about long-term solutions.'"
American customers need to demand changeAdvertisement
During the pandemic, public backlash, new legislation, and the need to protect employees — in order to keep them coming to work — helped force employers to offer new protections.
As America crafts a new normal, customers must continue to condemn actions that endanger workers and advocate for new laws and corporate policies that protect them.While the current system helped keep food prices low, it is not sustainable for workers or shoppers. Policies that did not prioritize workers' safety contributed to the spread of the coronavirus through the food supply chains — which led to skyrocketing meat prices.Advertisement
Requiring companies to invest more in workers may lead to higher costs in the short-term. But, the pandemic has also shown customers willing to support workers for nothing concrete in return.Relief funds to support restaurants' staff have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Latino civil rights groups called for Americans to give up their beloved meat for the month of May in order to support meat processing workers. Progressive campaigns continue to gather support, with the ACLU's campaign for McDonald's to provide paid sick leave gaining more than 51,000 signatures. The food supply chain is being forced to reinvent itself, from new safety policies to new revenue streams. Americans need to demand that protecting workers is a piece of the solution. Advertisement
The food supply chain was broken for workers long before the coronavirus pandemic. Any gains workers have made will be lost and it will remain just as broken, unless Americans force it to change.Read the original article on Business Insider