Temp-agency food workers should be prioritized for vaccine, advocates say

Workers in food distribution, production, and logistics who are employed by temporary staffing agencies and other subcontractors should be prioritized for early access to the Covid-19 vaccine alongside other food system workers, argues a new report focused on the Chicago labor force.

States are generally planning to allocate the vaccine to agricultural, grocery, and other food system workers in the first or early second phase of distribution. Workers and advocates with Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC), and other groups said in a press conference Tuesday that public health departments must play an active role in ensuring subcontracted food processing workers aren’t left behind.

“Workers in today’s factories, processing plants, and warehouses across the country are largely employed, not by the company whose products they produce, package and move, but by temporary staffing agencies and third-party logistics companies,” says the report, written by Tommy Carden of WWJ and Elena Gormley of CWC. “This system of subcontracting obscures the presence of these workers in crucial supply chains and leads to responsibility shirking and liability diffusion when it comes to the legal obligations owed to workers — all obstacles to effective vaccine deployment.”

The report surveyed 90 food production workers in the Chicago area about their experiences working during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the interviewees were employed by temporary staffing firms or logistics companies, manufacturing and distributing products for companies like Mars Wrigley, Trader Joe’s, Kellogg’s, and Costco.

Most surveyed workers reported that they would not receive paid time off to recover or quarantine if they contracted Covid-19, and that employers often failed to improve workplace protections against the spread of Covid-19 even after worker complaints. A lack of communication from employers about workers who had contracted or even died of the virus contributes to a “culture of fear in many facilities,” the authors wrote. And half of surveyed workers reported having no health insurance coverage.

Illinois is home to the second-largest food manufacturing hub in the country. FERN has counted 64 Covid-19 outbreaks, 2,377 worker cases, and 21 worker deaths in the Illinois food processing sector. An additional 2,000 farmworkers and meatpacking plant workers in the state have contracted Covid-19, and 14 have died.

Given this context, state and local agencies should ensure that vaccine distribution plans account for the special conditions faced by temp workers. “Temp workers and other subcontracted workers may not always report to the same workplace during a standard workweek,” the report explains. “Additionally, workers’ sense of being mistreated by their employers in the workplace and concerns about safety violations on the job will likely discourage many from receiving vaccines if they are administered through their employers.”

Public health departments in particular should step in to make sure that workers who may be wary of employers get access to the vaccine. “Many of the workers don’t trust the companies,” said Roberto Clack of WWJ at the press conference. “They don’t trust people like Amazon or Walmart or Mars to do [vaccination] well. We need our local health departments to be heavily involved … If we care about public health, we have to care about these workers who are risking their lives to keep food on our table.”

Ensuring that these workers can access the vaccine is a racial justice issue, advocates emphasized in the press conference. The vast majority of temporary staffing workers in Illinois manufacturing facilities are Black and Latinx, and 90 percent of the workers interviewed for the WWJ/CWC report identified as Black or Latinx.

“We keep the food on the shelves. We get no credit,” said Alfred White, a food manufacturing worker, at the press conference. “We need the vaccine and we need it now.”

Read the full report from WWJ and CWC here.