After a year of pandemic, food system workers still face risks

Although media reports and public data about Covid-19 cases among food system workers dropped off significantly after a first wave of outbreaks last spring, the virus quietly returned in waves at dozens of plants last year, writes Leah Douglas in FERN’s latest story.

More than 50 food and meat processing plants had multiple outbreaks of the virus last year, Douglas reports. More than 6,700 worker cases and 22 worker deaths are linked to these repeat outbreaks. Yet because few states are reporting data on workplace outbreaks, the locations of most food and farm outbreaks remain undisclosed.

At some plants, workers still have difficulty accessing testing and cannot social distance in crowded lunch rooms and on processing lines.

“Everything is small: the lunch break (room), the bathrooms, the hallways,” says one Tyson worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It’s impossible to not have people caught in small spaces.”

Worker advocates say there has been widespread implementation of Covid-19 protections like masking and temperature checks at food plants. “But in terms of the actual conditions that prevent social distancing or the power dynamics that prevent workers from being able to speak up, that still hasn’t changed,” says Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a worker advocacy group. “That’s the context in which outbreaks are allowed to happen.”

New worker cases have dropped significantly according to the little public data that is available. But getting a full picture of the ongoing scope of the Covid-19 crisis for food system workers remains impossible, in part because private companies will not disclose internal data on worker illness. Regulators need more data to ensure the industry is doing enough to protect workers, says Dr. Fredric Gerr, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. “Knowing the scope or extent of the problem is invariably the first step in creating a prevention strategy,” Gerr says.