Frontline food workers face ‘disproportionate impacts’ from COVID-19 pandemic

Sonia Singh, Co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss pandemic impacts on food chain workers.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: If it feels like he's been spending more at the supermarket, it's because you have. Last year food prices jumped nearly 4%, and experts say grocery bills could rise another 3% this year. And that's thanks in part to supply chain disruptions, and also a rise in all of us eating at home during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also had a disproportionate impact on the frontline workers who harvest, package, and distribute that food we eat. Here to talk about it Sonia Singh, Co-Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Sonia, good to have you here.

So these frontline food workers-- these are the unsung, unseen heroes, if you will, who are keeping us fed during these challenging times. Can you specifically tell us how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted those people? Not sure if you were able to hear me, Sonia?

SONIA SINGH: Oh, I'm sorry. I think that was just a little freeze there, but now I-- can you hear me?

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Great. Sure, sure. Yeah, so I'll re-ask you those. How has COVID-19 impacted those frontline food workers?

SONIA SINGH: Sure. I think that through the pandemic, many of us have been able to work from home. We're doing interviews from home. But frontline food workers have been part of the population of essential workers who just didn't have that choice, who were required to go into work-- whether it be on a meat packing line, whether it be as a farm worker harvesting food.

And that sort of work of continuing to provide these essential services even as COVID has gone through multiple waves and cases of surge has really led to a disproportionate impact on food workers not only becoming ill, becoming sick with COVID, but very sadly, in many sectors also a disproportionate rate of death.

So we know that there was one study in California that showed that food workers in California face the highest risk of any occupation of COVID deaths, something that our heart just breaks thinking about the many essential workers--

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Can I ask, even more so than health care, frontline health care workers?

SONIA SINGH: That's right. In California, they were-- and that was sort of cooks, warehouse workers, servers in various sectors that were all included. It was one of the few studies to date that we've seen that looked by occupation what the rate of death was.

A big part of that is because the food industry already had a lot of conditions that made food workers more vulnerable. The way that meat processing plants are set up, the way that the line speed is so fast, it's very difficult to socially distance. So we call those sort of like pre-existing conditions to COVID.

But also because of when we look at who is working in these essential jobs, we see that they're low-wage jobs. They're jobs where folks are already very vulnerable. And we've seen that a lot of these jobs are being done by workers of color, by Black workers, by Latinx workers. That's where we've seen some of the huge disproportionate impact in how COVID has affected different communities.

KRISTIN MYERS: So Sonia, how can we better protect our frontline workers that are working in the food industry, even as the pandemic continues-- and perhaps even afterwards, since I know that many of these workers are highly vulnerable not just from the pandemic?

SONIA SINGH: Well, I think that one of the things that our members, and their members who are food workers across the food chain, have been calling for are mandatory protections. We've seen there has still not been a federal emergency standard protecting us as workers on the job from the risks of COVID. There have been a few states that have brought in those sorts of mandatory emergency standards, but we need that on a federal level.

So that has been number one, that we need to be able to go to work and be confident that we can access protective equipment, that we can safely distance on the job, that there's adequate ventilation to stop us from becoming ill with COVID and then spreading in the community or to our family members. So we know that there is significant workplace spread that continues to occur. And we are very hopeful that under the new administration we will have an emergency temporary standard issued very soon. But it's not here yet, and we can't waste another day.

And then I think what gives us hope is seeing all of the ways that food workers tried to organize for better conditions over this last year. And we need to further that. We need to support restaurant workers, support warehouse workers, support all food workers being able to have a voice in their workplace, because they know best the kinds of protections that are needed and the ways that they can make sure that their job is safe for themselves, for their community, and for their families.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Sonia, I know that some of the workers you're talking about are undocumented workers, farm workers. And I know that there were three separate bills working their way through Congress right now to provide a path of legalization for these folks.

One of the bills that there's been a lot of debate around is called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, because apparently it's going to take folks years to become legal citizens. Tell us about the issues you have with that particular bill. And what would you like to see be done?

SONIA SINGH: Absolutely. Thank you so much for raising this question, because I think in coming out of this pandemic-- because we're still in the midst of-- I think that the visibility that farm workers and other essential food workers have received has really meant that this is the time to address the fact that many farm workers don't have permanent legal status or are living with very vulnerable immigration status that makes them very vulnerable to exploitation on the job.

And what we would like to see is a recognition of the sacrifices farm workers have made, and immediate legalization for farm workers. We know there's broad public support for this. And our concern with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is that it sets up a very complicated and very long path to get to that final end of permanent legal status that we just think is too long to wait for folks that have been sacrificing so much to ensure our food security.

And there's a lot of other concessions that are embedded in this bill that was legislation crafted under the Trump administration. We feel like we can do much better for farm workers in this current moment. And we don't need to be tying legal immigration status to exploitation, tying workers to an exploitative industry like the agricultural industry, as well as expanding the guest worker program.

There's a lot of very concerning elements of this bill that are not in place in some of the other measures that are on the table, like President Biden's immigration bill, which would provide immediate green cards for farm workers. That's the kind of bill that we would like to see moving forward right now.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right. Sonia Singh, Co-Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, thanks for being with us today.