Merkley, Colleagues Investigate How the Largest Food Processors and Farm Operators Are Protecting Workers from COVID-19 Outbreaks

Merkley, Colleagues Investigate How the Largest Food Processors and Farm Operators Are Protecting Workers from COVID-19 Outbreaks

Lack of CDC-recommended precautions, inadequate worker protections, and limited COVID-19 testing threaten workers' safety and the food supply chain

Washington, DC – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, along with U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), sent letters to the largest food and beverage processors and farm operators requesting information on how they are protecting their workers and the food supply chain from potential outbreaks of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) at their facilities. 

The letters come as reports suggest that food processors may not be taking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-recommended precautions to insulate their already-vulnerable workforce from the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks. In June, Senator Merkley led the introduction of the Frontline At-Risk Manual (FARM) Laborers Protection Act, groundbreaking legislation that would establish critical protections, including 10 days of paid leave and hazard pay, for America’s agricultural workers. 

"There have already been outbreaks in over 60 food processing facilities outside the meatpacking industry, with over a third of food processing and dairy facilities reporting at least one confirmed COVID-19 case," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the largest food and beverage processors. "Despite the substantial risk to workers posed by these conditions, the lack of widespread testing makes it nearly impossible to understand the scope of the outbreaks that have already occurred."

In addition to sickening meatpacking workers, COVID-19 outbreaks in the meatpacking industry induced labor shortages and contributed to substantial domestic price increases. Outbreaks in these facilities could threaten the broader food supply chain by further exacerbating existing labor shortages and reducing plant processing capacity.

"Supply chain failures in your industry would hurt all Americans but would disproportionately harm the most vulnerable Americans and risk further exacerbating the racial disparities of the COVID-19 crisis," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the food and beverage processors. "The combination of higher prices and income uncertainty or loss will place many in even greater financial difficulty at a time when a record number of Americans are already relying on overstretched food banks."

In addition to writing to the largest food processors, the lawmakers are concerned with reports that farms are experiencing outbreaks and that infections are spreading among farmworkers at an alarming pace, and they also sent letters to large farm operations.

"There have already been outbreaks in farms across the country—now, as harvest season begins, the significant threat of agricultural work creating a hotspot for the spread of COVID-19 among farmworkers is even greater. The consequences of employers' failure to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks extend beyond the imperative to protect the lives of their workers—they also pose a substantial public health threat to the communities where they operate and a threat to the food supply chain," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the largest farm operators.

While testing remains limited, farms that are testing are reporting infection rates of up to 50%-100%, which are among the highest in the country. Despite often working outdoors, farmworkers are frequently exposed to prolonged close contact both on their work sites and also in employer-managed transportation and housing that increases their risk of infection and transmission. Additionally, despite the hazardous nature of farm work, less than half of all farmworkers have health insurance and few have access to paid leave. When combined with the chronically low wages paid to farmworkers—farmworkers' wage rates remain among the lowest in the nation and their poverty rates are high—this means many simply cannot afford to get sick. Farmworkers also lack important legal protections

The lawmakers are also concerned with the impact that widespread outbreaks among farm workers could have on the food supply chain. Experienced, skilled, highly productive workers who must leave their jobs due to illness or quarantine are not easily replaced. Their absence could substantially impact production by forcing farms to shut down or reduce operations, further disrupting the rest of the food supply chain.

"While a supply chain shock would harm all Americans, the burden will not fall equally. Low-income Americans spend about a third of their income on food, and are seeing their own income erode, too," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the farm operators. "The combination of higher prices and income uncertainty or job loss for many Americans will place families in even greater financial difficulty at a time when a record number of Americans are already forced to rely on overstretched food banks."

The lawmakers have requested responses from both industries no later than July 15, 2020.

The following groups supported the letters: Environmental Working Group (EWG), Farmworker Justice, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Farm Workers, Justice for Migrant Women, Family Farm Action, and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

"Food and farm workers are taking enormous risks to keep the rest of us fed," said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for the Environmental Working Group, which is tracking COVID-19 cases at food processing facilities and farms. "But the number of food and farm workers who are getting sick is steadily going up, not down, because employers are not giving workers PPE or safe housing and transportation. Until basic protections are mandatory, the people who feed us will continue to get sick because they need to feed their own families."

"While it is important that the meat packing plants and the poultry plants receive intense review of their procedures and safety protocols for workers, other food processing plants have had similar issues, that in some cases have gone unreported.  Because our members are represented, we have been able to either work with the companies  to correct the problems, or force them  to correct them by use of our contract provisions and with the help of state and federal agencies.  We are taking care of our member's safety and working diligently to do so. Where I have real concerns, are the unrepresented plants where workers are afraid and intimidated into being quiet, or accepting working conditions that are a risk to them, and especially a risk to the products they are packaging or manufacturing," said Rome Aloise, International Vice President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

"Our food manufacturing and processing workers have been feeding us through the pandemic, working  long hours under extremely stressful conditions.  When our food and beverage drivers tell us their delivery routes are unsafe and everyone is passing the buck on who is responsible for their safety, that is a problem. When workers struggle to get time off to take care of family members because of under-staffing during a time of unprecedented unemployment, that is a problem. Company bottom lines should not dictate company policies around health and safety.  We must protect our essential food supply chain workers and examine industry practices to ensure companies are doing right by them," said Stuart Appelbaum, President of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

"The government has declared farm workers ‘essential workers’ in the midst of the pandemic, but has failed to protect them. Farm workers go to work each day while they are uniquely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because they often must live, commute and work in cramped, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.  Farm workers are keeping our food supply intact but with the peak summer harvesting starting farmworkers and their families are vulnerable. We must ensure workers are being provided basic protections and employers be held accountable. Farm workers have and will always be essential," said Teresa Romero, President of United Farm Workers.

Text of letters to food and beverage processors is available here, and text of letters to farm operators is available here