Food and Farmworkers Have Always Been Essential

by Ryan Nebeker


As COVID-19 grinds the economy to a near-halt, essential services have stayed open to keep us all healthy, housed and fed.  For many of us, the one trip outside we make during the week is to buy food. Before this pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns, we might have taken our easy access to food for granted, but empty shelves and long lines at grocery stores have put our food supply — and the people who work hard to provide it — into sharp focus. More than ever, it’s clear that food and farmworkers have always been essential. Their safety is not only a moral imperative; their safety is our safety. Unfortunately, many of the deep-rooted injustices that food and farmworkers already face put them at even greater risk of harm from COVID-19.

Food Supply Chains Under Strain

The food we eat every day represents the work of a lot of people. Even food from a more simple supply chain, like produce at a local farmers’ market, relies on workers to get there — and most of our food comes from much more complicated supply chains than that. As essential workers, the people who grow, harvest, process, transport and sell the food we eat are more likely to get exposed to this coronavirus, which puts our entire food system at risk of disruption. The planting and harvesting of grains and other industrially-produced staples are largely mechanized, but fruit and vegetables still need a lot of human labor. If these workers get sick, it’s possible that there won’t be enough of many crops to meet demand, causing high prices and more scarcity in stores. Food processing and transportation face similar challenges: meatpacking and grain facilities have already reduced production as workers get sick, which adds additional strain to an industry already struggling to keep up with surging demand

Seasonal Worker Shortages

In addition to the threat of the virus itself, the restrictions imposed on travel and activity to control the virus have added additional uncertainty. Even when other jobs are scarce, most Americans aren’t willing to work on farms, so agriculture still relies heavily on foreign workers. The sudden shutdown of consulates in Mexico and the suspension of new seasonal H-2A work visas left the farmers and fisherpeople who rely on seasonal workers scrambling to secure workers and desperately lobbying the State Department and the Department of Agriculture for solutions. While the State Department later changed the requirements to allow new H-2A workers into the country without in-person interviews, the incident exposed how vital farmworkers are to our national food supply. 

Coronavirus Compounds Existing Risks for Workers 

Agriculture is a dangerous industry — at least 100 on-farm injuries happen every day, and many more go unreported — and the risks posed by COVID-19 only exacerbate these hazards. Farmworkers have long been excluded from many of the victories of the labor movement that ensured safe and fair working conditions for other industries: they aren’t eligible for overtime pay and face retaliation for organizing. Now, farmworkers who already have little control over their environment face additional risk of falling ill as they work in tight formation to harvest crops. 

About half of the farmworkers in the country are undocumented, which makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation. While they are now considered essential workers, they still face deportation. Under normal circumstances, this threat pressures undocumented workers into accepting hazardous conditions, long hours, chemical exposures, poor sanitation and other risks in the field and in food processing facilities. Now, this coronavirus adds even more danger to poor conditions: workers live in tight quarters where they can’t practice social distancing or wash their hands to minimize the spread of the virus. Infected workers have few options for affordable medical treatment, and might avoid medical care for fear of deportation. 

Workers in other parts of the food industry are also at risk. In the absence of paid sick leave, many workers in food processing — slaughterhouses, packing facilities and factories — have to choose between infecting their coworkers and losing their jobs. Meat plant workers, who already deal with dangerous equipment at unsafe speeds, now have to work even faster to keep up with demand as coworkers get sick. This puts them at a higher risk of serious injury. It also poses a food safety hazard, as rushed workers are more likely to accidentally contaminate meat with bacteria from the animals’ guts.

Protecting Workers

Food and farmworkers need to be better compensated and adequately protected from the risks posed by COVID-19. Many workers in food and agriculture were left out of the relief bill that mandated paid sick leave for other industries, and farmworkers have limited resources to take advantage of emergency aid like school meal distribution. Undocumented workers, who pay taxes, are generally unable to claim any of the benefits from the stimulus package. Outside of government action, workers at Whole Foods and other grocery chains have fought for hazard pay and paid sick leave during the crisis, with limited success. Similar policies at food processing plants and on farms would help workers avoid choosing between losing their jobs or infecting their coworkers. 

Ultimately, addressing the risks that the coronavirus poses to food and farmworkers means addressing some of the underlying inequities they faced before the crisis. Visa expansion and immigration reform can help expand the number of people who are in the country with legal protection, but we should push for labor reform that works for all food and farmworkers, regardless of immigration status. This means adopting measures like mandatory sanitation facilities in fields, higher housing standards, fair pay and better access to healthcare. These changes come at a cost, and many of them could be passed on to consumers in the form of higher food prices. Given the current crisis, however, it’s easy to see that food and farmworkers have always been essential. It’s time we start acting like it.

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