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June 10, 2021 — Today, more than a year into the pandemic, the Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its first Emergency Temporary Standard establishing enforceable COVID-19 safety protocols for employers only in health care facilities. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced that “OSHA has tailored a rule that focuses on health care” and does not cover frontline workers in the food system and other sectors, who have advocated for similar protections since the start of the pandemic. 

In response to this announcement, FCWA and member organizations and workers released the following statements:

Suzanne Adely and Sonia Singh, Co-directors of Food Chain Workers Alliance, said: “Health care workers deserve to be safe on the job. But they aren’t the only ones who should be protected. Workers in the food system sacrificed their physical and mental health during the pandemic to sustain our country, even as their employers often neglected their safety and wellbeing. The Biden administration’s failure to include them under this new OSHA standard disregards that sacrifice, and sets the stage for further tragedy. 

“Food workers are among the most at risk and most underpaid workers, and disproportionately are people of color and immigrants, so they are especially vulnerable to employer exploitation. As states and cities end mask requirements and other COVID-19 precautions, food workers are already being exposed to risks like unmasked and unvaccinated customers, or reduced cleaning in their workplaces. Now more than ever, our elected leaders must hold corporations accountable to protect workers. OSHA should extend this narrow ETS to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all working people.”

Jaribu Hill, Executive Director, Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, FCWA Board Member, said: “We at the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights are located in the Mississippi Delta, where 43% of the population languishes in abject poverty. The majority of the working population are low wage, non-union workers, who do not have adequate healthcare or access to resources that would improve their quality of life. We are profoundly concerned about OSHA’s decision to enact an Emergency Temporary Standard that will only apply to healthcare workers. We understand healthcare workers need these protections, but so do all essential workers. Food processing workers, laundry workers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, restaurant workers and daycare workers, are among the most impoverished essential workers in our region. 

“Many are forced to work even when they are sick with COVID because they do not have paid sick leave or paid time off. This decision to exclude all other essential workers from coverage under the proposed standard is one that will cause deep divisions among workers and will result in widespread employment discrimination and wrongful exclusion of thousands who need this critical relief that is long overdue. In the interest of fairness and worker justice, we urge you to reconsider and expand the reach of the COVID Emergency Temporary Standard to include all essential and vulnerable workers.” 

Hodaliz Mariana Borrayes, Organizer, Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, said: “The news that OSHA is only going to create temporary protections for workers in the healthcare industry is alarming. All workers deserve protections, regardless of the industry. This year, workers and families working in the fields, construction, restaurant and many others have been exposed to COVID every day. OSHA standards would benefit all workers, but especially undocumented immigrant workers who are afraid of getting the vaccine, who do not have health insurance to meet their needs, and who could not get federal or state aid either.”

Axel Fuentes, Executive Director, Rural Community Workers Alliance, said: “Government institutions have failed in protecting food chain workers from COVID-19. Food chain workers have been called heroes, but they are treated as disposable.  Thousands of meat processing plant workers were infected with COVID-19, hundreds died and still institutions are still failing to protect workers and to make companies accountable. All workers deserve a safe and healthy place to work.” 

Neza Xiuhtecutli, General Coordinator, Farmworker Association of Florida, said: “We recognize the danger that healthcare workers face and are glad that they are getting these protections, but excluding farmworkers and other food workers further reinforces the barriers that the most vulnerable workers in society face in being able to take care of themselves and their families. The effects of lack of access to healthcare only make the lack of protections for farmworkers more distressful, as those barriers and being unable to take preemptive care outs them at greater risk of suffering the more adverse effects and complications of COVID-19 that can lead to the more sinister health outcomes or to suffer the long-term sequelae that COVID-19 survivors have been reporting.  It is unconscionable to continue to exclude these workers on whom we depend so much from the protections afforded other workers, highlighting once again the structural racism permeating our food system.”

Anstasia H., a farmworker in Immokalee, FL, said: “It is absurd that farmworkers are not protected. Without farmworkers there is no food in the grocery stores or on tables, and without protections for farmworkers there will be no farmworkers. At the beginning of the pandemic we couldn’t find masks, and we would ride up to ten people in a van, all without masks. Even our supervisor would tell us, ‘Don’t you believe in God?’ You’ll be all right if you believe in God.’ Then I ended up getting [COVID-19]. It’s great that they gave them to doctors and nurses, but if they don’t want food in the stores and on tables, don’t give protections to farmworkers.”