The workers who grow, process, package, warehouse and transport food have worked through the pandemic, many of them employed by temporary staffing agencies and lacking protections like health insurance and paid sick leave.
As vaccinations roll out, worker advocates are calling on governments, corporations and the public at large to recognize the critical role these low-paid workers play and ensure they are prioritized for inoculation.
“Without us this whole engine wouldn’t be running,” said Alfred White, who has worked, through a temporary staffing agency, at four different food warehouses in the Chicago area since the pandemic began.
White spoke Tuesday on a conference call organized by a group of worker justice organizations to announce a report highlighting the conditions local food production workers face during the pandemic and outlining steps to help ensure they are prioritized for vaccines.
Illinois’ vaccination plan includes food processing and manufacturing workers among the essential front-line workers set to qualify for vaccines in phase 1B, the second category of eligible recipients after health care workers.
Worker advocates say they want production, distribution and logistics workers to also be prioritized, and for the state to put in writing that temporary workers are included. They want companies to give workers paid time off to get both vaccine doses and for vaccination to be available through local health departments.
They urged the state to partner with worker centers to coordinate distribution of the vaccine to help calm fears many people have about getting inoculated and encourage participation.
“Frankly speaking, many of these workers don’t trust these companies, they don’t trust the state,” said Roberto Clack, associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice, which developed the report with Chicago Workers Collaborative and in partnership with Temp Worker Justice, Raise the Floor, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Partners for Dignity and Respect.
The groups last month interviewed 90 workers in food production, distribution and logistics in the Chicago area, a national hub for food manufacturing. Nearly three-quarters of those interviewed were employed through temporary staffing or third-party logistics companies, a structure that raises concerns about working conditions.
“This system of subcontracting obscures the presence of these workers in crucial supply chains and leads to responsibility shirking and liability diffusion when it comes to the legal obligations owed to workers — all obstacles to effective vaccine deployment,” the report said.
Two-thirds of the surveyed workers had either contracted COVID-19 or knew someone at work who did. Eleven percent knew a co-worker who had died of the virus.
Some 85% said their employers didn’t respond to worker concerns about COVID-19 safety, took ineffective actions or retaliated against those who spoke up. Forty percent reported they were not screened daily at work for symptoms.
The vast majority of those who got sick with COVID-19 said they didn’t receive paid sick leave from their employer, and nearly half said they didn’t have health insurance. More than half said they make less than $15 an hour.
For people already struggling to make ends meet, the risk puts them in a precarious situation.
Estrella Hernandez said she was working at a factory making sweets destined for supermarkets when the pandemic hit, and the layout made it impossible to social distance. When people got sick they were sent home without pay. She said she made the “painful decision” to quit her job because she feared exposing her son, who has asthma, and her elderly parents.
“I have struggled to find a job that provides me with safety and security,” she said in Spanish during Tuesday’s conference call. She added: “We are essential workers and no one values our work.”
More than 80,000 people in Illinois work in food processing, and tens of thousands more work to transport and warehouse the food, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited in the report. About 680,000 people in the state are employed in blue collar temp jobs, 78% of them Black or Latino, though that’s not specific to food, according to 2019 state data analyzed in a report last month by temp worker rights groups.
Factory work, where people often work shoulder to shoulder, has been shown to be high risk for transmission of the coronavirus.
Statewide, since July 1, the greatest number of COVID-19 outbreaks outside of nursing homes were at factories and manufacturing facilities, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Nationally, at least 1,347 meatpacking and food processing plants have had confirmed COVID-19 cases, 67,009 workers have tested positive for the virus, and at least 312 workers have died.
Both meatpacking companies and the unions representing their workers have called for meatpacking workers to be prioritized for vaccines.
Tuesday’s report said vaccine access, while critical, is not enough. They are calling for food production and warehouse workers to be given hazard pay and paid sick leave and for the state to withhold tax incentives from companies that violate COVID-10 protocols. They also want employers to have to give just cause for firing workers so that employees aren’t afraid of speaking up about unsafe conditions.