National Consumers League

Coronavirus and unsafe working conditions for poultry workers

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

In these uncertain times of COVID-19, many workers are being exposed to the disease at poultry plants across the United States. Eater notes that many of these workers are Black, Latino, or immigrants earning low wages and working in overcrowded conditions to package the items that end up on the plates of many families across the States.

Let us dive in a little deeper. The Los Angeles Times has highlighted the spike in coronavirus and meat plants across the United States, with hundreds of reported cases in the last week. This is, of course, a concern to the food supply chain and worker safety. The Associated Press has reported that massive meat processing plants have temporarily closed due to workers contracting COVID-19. This raises concerns about shortages of beef, pork, and poultry. At the same time, workers are being exposed and are succumbing to COVID-19.

The New York Times also reported that workers are standing elbow-to-elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting and packing meat. Many have been on the front line of these packing plants while being sick because they cannot afford to stay home and sacrifice paychecks. Some have staged walkouts to protest being insufficiently protected. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has a seat on the National Consumers League’s Board of Directors, has engaged in talks with Cargill, which has agreed to give employees a $2/hour emergency pay increase in addition to a pay raise. The union and Cargill are working on ways to better practice social distancing within the packing plants. Increased sanitization and screening at the plants, and virtual health visits will be expanded for those seeking care health care.

Each day brings new information about COVID-19. When going to the store to purchase meat, let us remember that someone stood in a plant slaughtering and packing it. They are on the frontline risking their lives so that we can eat. UFCW is calling on ALL food employers to step up by developing ways to protect workers and by compensating them commensurate with the risks they are taking to deliver quality products to the grocery stores, restaurants, and family tables of America.