Protections for Food Workers

Read our COVID-19 Response & Recovery blog series

By Nessia Berner Wong, Kimberly Libman, Sabrina Adler, & Rebecca Johnson 

COVID-19 has urgently demonstrated that everyone needs to live in safe and healthy communities. The people most affected by COVID-19 are communities of color, people with low income, immigrants, and other underserved groups. These groups are most vulnerable because of existing laws and policies that affect the fundamental drivers of health inequities. Communities and local governments that take steps to ensure health, safety, housing, food, and economic stability for all of their residents will be helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and laying the groundwork for health equity and prosperity for future generations.

To help communities and local governments strengthen their response to COVID-19 and advance health equity, we’re publishing a blog series about policies that they can enact right away. This post is the first in the series.

Food workers have always been essential personnel: their work helps keep people healthy and maintain our economy. People who serve, deliver, distribute, process, and harvest our food make up 11 percent of the US workforce (22 million jobs) and are crucial to the healthy functioning of our food system. Compared with workers in many other industries, food workers earn lower wages, work in more physically demanding and dangerous jobs, experience higher rates of food insecurity and chronic health issues, and have lower rates of health care coverage. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, food workers are facing wage losses, more dangerous working conditions, and acute health hazards from coronavirus, putting at risk the US food system and everyone who relies on it. In order to maintain the food system, it is critical that local governments take action to support and protect these essential workers.

Many local governments are taking their first steps to implement crucial protections for food workers. One measure they are pursuing is requiring grocery and food delivery companies to provide flexible work schedules so that workers can care for themselves or family members who are ill. Other measures include providing employees with protective gear (or reimbursing them for the cost of such gear) and opening coronavirus testing centers for food workers. Some large food businesses are also taking the initiative by providing hazard pay and sick pay for all workers. We at ChangeLab Solutions applaud all of these efforts and encourage other leaders and communities to follow their lead.

In addition to taking some of the approaches just mentioned, local decisionmakers can help institutionalize food worker safety by considering the following policies to protect food workers now and support a sustainable food system in the future:

  • Require employers of food workers who serve, deliver, distribute, process, and harvest our food to provide health and safety protections appropriate to the workplace and responsive to current pandemic-related health risks. Such protections would include up-to-date health information for employees on how to protect themselves and their communities from the coronavirus; access to handwashing; safe working conditions; and personal protective equipment.
  • Establish a process for all food workers to have access to free coronavirus testing, paid sick days, and health care coverage, regardless of immigration status and size of the workplace.
  • Support employers of food workers in providing hazard pay during health crises such as the current pandemic as well as during the economic rebuilding period.
  • Suspend penalties for street vendor compliance violations ― regardless of whether the vendor has a permit or a license. Unlicensed street vending is criminalized in most states. In the case of a confirmed outbreak or major food safety violations that could threaten public health, officials should consider providing unlicensed vendors with the same opportunities to fix food safety violations that they offer to licensed vendors. These actions will support economic recovery, expand food access, and limit unnecessary police harassment of entrepreneurial food workers who are trying to make a living and find a way out of unemployment and poverty.

For more resources on policies to support food workers, check out the Food Chain Workers Alliance, National Employment Law Project, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food Policy Networks project, and ChangeLab Solutions’ resources on food systems. Be sure to find out whether the policies you are considering are permitted under your state's laws.

Please check out the next installment in this series, which covers equitable enforcement of public health laws and protections.

4/20/2020; updated 4/29/2020