Underpaid and Unprotected: How the COVID-19 Crisis is Highlighting the Injustices Faced by America’s Food Workers

Three weeks ago, a striking image depicting dozens of delivery drivers crowding the sidewalk outside of the high-end New York City Italian eatery Carbone made its way around the internet. Ordering $69 veal parmesan may seem like the logical thing to do for wealthy homebound Manhattan residents on a Friday night, yet the image represents a much more striking reality: the Coronavirus is not the “great equalizer” many have claimed it to be. Food chain workers, from delivery drivers to fieldworkers, take on a greater risk of exposure than most of us to keep the food system running and provide us with the life-sustaining food we need while sheltering in place. We must ensure adequate protections and compensation for those that continue to expose themselves for the greater good.

We recently spoke with the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of food-worker organizations representing close to 400,000 packers, harvesters and restaurant workers, among others working to move food from field to table. Christina Spach, a national organizer, tells us that fast-food chains, grocery stores and processing plants have been slow to implement safety measures for their employees. Many employers have yet to provide paid sick days or even basic safety information. The problem, she explains, is that there are no enforceable standards that employers must follow when it comes to protective measures against COVID-19, so companies can essentially do nothing and still say they are following CDC guidelines. In the past few weeks, hundreds of workers from fast-food chains across California have gone on strike to demand masks, gloves and hazard pay. McDonald’s has recently responded to their employees’ demands by offering themed morale-boosting activities rather than increasing safety measures.

Restaurant workers were among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, with massive layoffs leading to mass unemployment and food insecurity. The industry estimates job losses anywhere from 5 to 7 million. For undocumented workers, benefits such as unemployment are unavailable.

Farm workers are often overlooked as being at risk for exposure to the Coronavirus as the crisis is usually associated with metropolitan areas. Yet the risk of exposure still exists and rural medical facilities have a much smaller capacity than those in cities. Greg Asbed is one of the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-driven social responsibility organization. In a recent New York Times article, Asbed argues that America’s 2.5 million farmworkers are one of the highest risk groups for becoming sick from the coronavirus. Farmworkers often live together in cramped conditions, rely on shared transportation and work in close proximity to one another. “Their dilemma is painfully simple: The two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread — social distancing and self-isolation — are effectively impossible in farmworker communities,” explained Asbed.

“As of March 30, 77% of workers are reporting that nothing has really changed,” Armando Elenes, the secretary treasurer of United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farmworker union, told Quartz. With no additional safety measures, COVID-19 is likely to spread rampantly among farmworker communities. Rather than compensating them for the additional risk they take on during this time, the White House is seeking to lower farmworker pay in response to demands from the agricultural lobby as a measure to keep farms fiscally viable.

Workers along the food chain are increasingly being viewed as expendable by their employers. They lack negotiating power as employers are able to easily hire new workers, especially in light of recent waves of unemployment. The COVID-19 crisis is only amplifying already underlying issues in our food system. Why is it disproportionately people of color that work lower paying food industry jobs? Why do some communities have more abundant access to food than others?

“A lot of the infrastructures that allow for this kind of exploitation are pre-existing. We’re trying to raise the analysis to say: the reason this is happening is because food workers have always been treated as expendable,” says Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. In order to address these inequalities, policies must be put in place that ensure workers’ rights and safety are protected. The Food Chain Workers Alliance has recently outlined three immediate policy priorities: safety measures and information, hazard pay or premium pay, and protection for undocumented workers and people who work in the informal economy.

In addition to ensuring food chain workers’ rights and protections, we must find distribution methods that prioritize local food economies and food sovereignty. If we can further connect local farmers directly to their surrounding communities and move away from the corporate distribution structures that keep those producing, handling and delivering our food disempowered, perhaps we can build a just food system that values, protects and champions its essential workers.

Alex Roth