Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
While the pandemic has forced businesses across the country to shutter, one major exception to the stay-at-home orders are food-related industries: farms and grocery stores are bustling, some restaurants are continuing takeout and delivery, and food-processing plants keep chugging along. Workers at these businesses struggle with harsh, often exploitative working conditions and, increasingly, the question of whether their wages are worth the risk of continuing to work amid a global health crisis.
“Sam,” a worker at the specialty vegan brand No Evil Foods, based in Asheville, North Carolina, feels unsafe at the factory where they and about sixty coworkers produce socially conscious fake meat products. Although employees are given hand sanitizer and advised to maintain their distance, in the packed facility, they said, “Keeping six-feet apart remains impossible.”
Sam described, literally, how the sausage is made, and how the management’s warnings are difficult to follow:
Somebody has to be next to the machine to pull the sausage out, somebody has to be next to them to basically wind the sausage on a cooking tray, and then [a] third person has to be next to them to put the cooking tray onto a cooking rack, where it goes into the oven. So you already have three people standing next to each other there. . . .
[I]f the manager comes around, they’ll be like, “Hey, y’all have to, you know, spread out a little bit.” But it’s so relaxed that it’s almost impossible to really enforce it. And just the nature of working with machines and conveyor belts and all of this other technology . . . you have to be near each other all the time. Not to mention our production facility itself is very small . . . so we’re all around each other. And it would just really take one person coughing and another person walking by and breathing it in, and then there’s your COVID, right there.
Though workers can get ten days paid time off if they or a family member contracts COVID-19, some would rather not risk coming to work at all. Questioning whether No Evil truly deserved its “essential” designation, Sam added, “I don’t think vegans would starve across the planet or across the country if this product wasn’t being made right now.”
No Evil, whose product line includes meat facsimiles called “Comrade Cluck” and “El Zapatista,” claimed last month it had “amped up our already rigorous sanitation practices” and gave workers a choice of three bad options, according to leaked documents published by Industrial Worker on Twitter. The workers could either stay, with a temporary $1.50 boost in hourly wages (conditional on having ninety-day perfect attendance), quit temporarily with the possibility of being rehired, or resign permanently, with three weeks’ severance. Employees have criticized the company for pushing out workers amid a massive public health crisis. Several employees have left, and many of those remaining are demanding a comprehensive hazard pay policy, not the proposed sixty-day pay raise reserved for those with good attendance records.
Two of Sam’s coworkers have already quit because they were immunocompromised. Given the risks they faced in the workplace, Sam said, “They were really given no option other than to take the three weeks’ pay and good luck finding a job now, because everybody here is getting laid off.”
There is also lingering bitterness about a failed union drive prior to the pandemic: a group of workers had sought to organize with United Food and Commercial Workers—the union that has been pushing food manufacturers and grocers to beef up safety protections and wages amid the crisis—but the management deployed an aggressive anti-union campaign, according to Sam, which ultimately succeeded in quashing the union. The COVID-19 crisis has inspired some to start organizing again, this time by circulating a petition for hazard pay with no conditions.
Noting that most of their coworkers had already signed, Sam added, “In the sense of getting solidarity in the workplace, [management’s] responses to COVID have really just strengthened us—and made a lot of the people who voted against the union kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘Hm. Maybe we were misled.’”
Yet Sam is not sure how long they will stay at No Evil. The turmoil of recent weeks has left them disillusioned about the company’s socially conscious brand image, they said: “I really came to this job . . . with very high expectations, thinking that I could actually be here for a long time and make this into a long-term thing. And now, I’m just like, wow. This is just like every other job I’ve had. And it’s very disappointing.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.