Taking Care of the Food Workers Who Take Care of Us

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequities faced by food- and farmworkers who put their health in danger just by coming to work each day. NRDC is pushing to change that.
Farmworkers, such as those seen here harvesting romaine lettuce in Salinas, California, have remained on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Terry Schmitt/UPI/Alamy Live News

When COVID-19 swept through the JBS USA meatpacking facility in Greeley, Colorado, in March 2020, executives and managers left plant employees in harm’s way. Even as hundreds of employees began to fall ill, the company’s leadership urged staff to continue coming to work, without providing any health screens, face masks, or social-distancing guidelines. It was the local union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7, that relayed critical information to the workers—many of whom were immigrants with varying degrees of English proficiency—and helped them navigate health care. As UFCW pushed JBS USA to implement COVID-19 safety measures at the Greeley plant, its advocates simultaneously implored the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, to investigate that plant’s negligent response to the virus outbreak. OSHA responded by imposing a $15,615 fine on the company, seven months later.

Unfortunately, the situation that played out in Colorado last spring is merely one of many instances where workers lack the protections they deserve as they do jobs that put their health and safety in jeopardy. The risks of workplace illness or death, already magnified by the climate crisis, have been further exposed by COVID-19. Farm and food chain workers—disproportionately immigrants and people of color—are among the most vulnerable.

“The pandemic underscores the tragically high toll due to lack of action and accountability within the powerful U.S. food and farming industry,” says NRDC senior health officer David Wallinga, MD, who focuses on advocacy at the intersection of food, nutrition, sustainability, and public health. “There’s a human toll on workers and the residents of surrounding communities, but also on environmental health.”

Leading up to and especially throughout the pandemic, NRDC has joined with allies to press for better protections for workers, particularly in the agricultural sector. Typically, employees in meatpacking plants like the one in Greeley stand elbow to elbow and face one another, working at fast speeds with heavy and dangerous equipment. Ventilation is not always adequate. Rates of workplace injury, even deaths, are high. Despite our reliance on these and other essential laborers, they continue to be treated as sacrificial by their employers and the government.

“The thing I find particularly alarming is how absent federal regulators have been when it comes to worker safety,” says Juanita Constible, a senior climate and health advocate at NRDC.

As Constible says, “It's pretty stark how few people are keeping eyes on employers. The Trump administration also worked to really push a business wish list of attacks on workers’ rights,” including collective bargaining and other means to stay safe on the job. Unions and other worker collectives play a critical role in worker health and safety, including negotiating for health benefits, such as paid leave, and holding employers accountable for unsafe practices.

In February 2020, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would guarantee the rights of workers to unionize or collectively bargain, passed the House. Then it stalled. Now, with President Biden’s pledge of support for the proposal, labor unions and their advocates, including NRDC, are poised to propel the bill forward. They’ll also press to restore funding and capacity to OSHA, which saw drastic budget cuts during the Trump administration, despite overlapping climate and COVID-19 crises that disproportionately impact food- and farmworkers. Already, President Biden has refocused attention on the agency; one of his first executive orders directed the agency to pursue an emergency temporary standard that would set COVID-19 workplace-safety requirements and enforce compliance.

At particular risk are the health and safety of the food- and farmworkers who toil outdoors, harvesting our fruits, nuts, and vegetables. In 2018, as part of a community partnership led by Public Citizen, NRDC supported a petition to OSHA to create a heat safety standard for all workers. Currently—even on the heels of the hottest decade on record—only California, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington have some kind of safety standard, and no two are alike. When OSHA rejected the request, Public Citizen began working with congressional allies to secure protections through the legislature.

On October 1, 2020, then-senator Kamala Harris and Senator Sherrod Brown introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, named in honor of a 53-year-old man who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in 100-plus-degree heat. NRDC helped shape the findings section of the bill; if passed, the legislation would create the first-ever national heat safety standard. It would also provide whistleblower protection for those who speak up about unsafe work practices and workplaces—a critical component because, as Constible notes, “a key part of worker health and safety is to make sure that workers have a voice.”

An irrigation system in front of a home across the road from a Smithfield Foods–owned hog farm in North Carolina. The way Smithfield Foods raises its hogs has caused a number of problems for area residents.

Gerry Broome/AP Photo

Meanwhile, on the state level, NRDC has continued to push for change alongside communities where residents are especially impacted by intensive industrial farms and meat-processing facilities, like those of Duplin County, North Carolina. There, pork production controlled by Smithfield Foods pollutes the air with noxious odors, to the point where residents avoid hanging their clean laundry on outdoor clotheslines. Smithfield’s pork processing plants also endanger the health of employees—who, like the JBS USA staff, experienced major COVID-19 outbreaks in their ranks last year. Over the summer, NRDC worked to ratchet up public pressure on behalf of these residents and workers. Our activists sent thousands of petitions calling on state leaders to support the Farm System Reform Act, introduced by Senator Cory Booker to clean up the industrial agriculture sector’s messes.

In Maryland, NRDC signed on to a Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection letter that calls on Governor Larry Hogan to pass an executive order to institute strong COVID-19 protections for food and farm workers. Maryland is home to one of the largest poultry industries in the nation, as well as a major seafood industry, and when the pandemic struck the Eastern Shore last spring, many of the counties where processing facilities were located had COVID-19 infection rates almost double the national average. “The lack of protections coupled with retaliation forces workers to work in silence,” the letter states.

Indeed, many of our essential food- and farmworkers are marginalized or undocumented, and “right now their voices are really getting taken away from them,” Constible says.

In a July report, “On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers,” NRDC and our partners highlighted the fact that Black people, Latinos, and other people of color are more likely to work in essential industries and jobs than white people. It’s clear that the agricultural industry is among those taking advantage of racist structures in turning a blind eye to the suffering of so many of its employees—and worse, restricting their abilities to advocate for themselves. While worker activism has surged since the start of the pandemic, so have employer crackdowns on these attempts to organize.

“With the Biden administration, we expect stronger worker protections, coupled with real enforcement on the ground,” Wallinga notes. “NRDC and its allies will be watching to make sure that happens.”

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