As states begin the tumultuous process of “reopening” their economies, the workers who have been picking, processing, and packing the nation’s food supply won’t miss a beat. For them, the economy was never really on pause; many have been working even harder and for longer hours, as consumers under stay-at-home orders snatch up produce and pantry ingredients at the supermarket. But as commercial activity ramps up and pressure on the food system intensifies, the Teamsters have issued a call to action, demanding decent safety conditions, medical support for COVID-19 testing and tracing, and stronger labor protections in the food processing and dairy facilities that the union represents.
Efrain Rios, a machine operator at Dole Fresh Vegetables in Soledad, California, which packages gourmet salad kits sold in produce aisles, has received some safety protections at work. The company laid out some basic protocols, directing workers to wear masks, practice social distancing, and sanitize their equipment. But on the shop floor, Rios said, things look different. Speaking through a Spanish translator, he recounted seeing some of his coworkers flouting the safety protocols by not wearing their masks properly or by not maintaining several feet between them. The politics of the pandemic might be a factor as well, he noted: “some of the workers are not interested in, or they don’t believe that there is a virus,” he added. “So, they’re not following those guidelines.”
Although unionized workers in the food supply chain generally enjoy better working conditions than their non-union counterparts, a survey of members in the Teamsters’ Food Processing and Dairy Divisions revealed that, as of late May, workplaces were facing both widespread infection and a lack of adequate testing to monitor transmission: “35 percent of facilities had workers test positive for COVID-19, and 80 percent of employers were not testing.” Additionally, more than one in four workplaces were not allowing workers to keep at least six feet apart. And most employers were not providing hazard pay.
Some workers, however, have managed to establish safety guidelines and effective infection control at work.
Chiquita Todd, a forklift operator and union steward at Riviana Foods in Tennessee, said the union helped inform members early on what kind of health threats they would be facing, and counsel them that they could take time off without being punished for it: “We had to educate the employees first. . . . We’d heard about it, but we didn’t actually know what it was. Once we identified the virus itself, we went forward with putting things in place to let the employees know that if you have these symptoms, if you’re not feeling well, if you feel like you’ve been exposed, please report it. You can go home, it’s not going to [count] against you.” Employees are immediately informed if a coworker falls ill, so that anyone who has been exposed can take measures to isolate themselves. Todd said that her facility has managed to protect workers against the virus by working in conjunction with the union to train workers and provide protective equipment. At workplaces where workers do not have adequate protection, she added, “they should do their research to try to form a union.”
But even at unionized workplaces, workers struggle to cope with the pressures of working amid a pandemic. Chris Suazo, who handles incoming shipments of groceries at Americold, a warehouse facility that distributes goods to chains including Kroger, said that while the workers were short-staffed before COVID-19 hit, “at the beginning of the pandemic, it went to basically unmanageable amounts.” Over the course of the pandemic their daily shipments have fluctuated from about 170,000 to 180,000 to as many as 330,000 cases a day. Meanwhile, he said, workers have had to bring their own protective gear to work.
The company was slow in getting protective gear to the workers, Suazo said, and “it didn’t start taking peoples’ temperatures at the door until after we had a positive [COVID-19] test.”
Workers are also having to spend many more hours in the workplace, since many are racking up overtime shifts that have become more or less mandatory. Suazo works about sixty hours a week. The stress forces many workers to leave after just a few months on the job. Currently, he added, the union is in arbitration with Americold over its decision to use short-term staff to fill workforce gaps, resulting in temp workers “taking our union work away.” Americold has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Yet, as mass joblessness plagues the country, Suazo feels lucky to even have a job:
I do appreciate being able to go to work . . . but it’s still difficult. I might be doing a lot better financially, but it’s definitely harder at work, and then it’s harder at home, too. I have two kids, so, and [after getting home from work] I go around the back and take all my work clothes off and get in the shower . . . when we had the positive tests at work, I ended up staying in the basement for a couple weeks, to make sure I didn’t get the kids sick. So that’s a lot of sacrificing. It’s pretty tough.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.