Opinion: We Must Protect Workers Who Put Food on Our Table

Photo by Pexels.com

Essential workers who are processing our chicken, picking our crabs and harvesting our crops are critical to the food supply in our region. And these workers are succumbing to COVID-19 at higher rates than the general population. Governor Hogan and Maryland state agencies must act now to ensure their safety.

Maryland continues to see increasing cases of COVID-19, and our idyllic Eastern Shore sits at the epicenter, with the number of confirmed COVID-19 expected to grow. In rural communities across the country, where meat packing and poultry processing workers fuel local economies, thousands are testing positive for COVID-19. Nearly 20 workers have died.

The greater Salisbury metropolitan area is #10 on the New York Times list of hot spots for highest daily average for growth rate of cases, due to our poultry industry. There are 279 lab-confirmed cases associated with poultry workers in Maryland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Emergency Management Agency are on the ground helping local officials respond, but more must be done.

The majority of those impacted in this area by COVID-19 are immigrants and African Americans who make up much of the workforce for our poultry industry and farms. In Sussex County, Delaware —part of the Salisbury metropolitan area — the COVID-19 positive rate is 347 per 10,000 for Hispanics and 112 per 10,000 for blacks, compared to 22 per 10,000 for whites.

Meanwhile, the Delmarva poultry industry welcomed President Trump’s recent executive order declaring meat processing plants critical infrastructure to keep business running and grocery stores stocked. Trump has refused to take similar action to increase manufacturing of vital, lifesaving tools to fight this virus, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare providers or for wide-spread testing. And his administration has not mandated protection of our essential workers, including farmworkers and poultry processing workers.

The CDC has issued guidelines for employers and businesses and guidelines specific to meat processing. But the federal agency responsible for worker health and safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, refuses to make these mandatory. In essence, OSHA has told workers they can either risk infection and possibly death, or not earn an income.

The exponential increase in positive COVID-19 cases is further evidence that chicken companies and state agencies in Maryland are not doing enough.

State governments across the country including California, Oregon and Wisconsin are issuing emergency orders to protect workers and laborers. We must too. Hundreds of laborers who plant and harvest our crops on the Delmarva Peninsula will be arriving soon, adding to the urgency.

Governor Hogan deserves praise for leading our state through this crisis, and we urge him to follow the precedent set by other states with emergency orders for workers.

Wisconsin requires employers to ensure that workers maintain a social distance of at least six feet apart in the fields, during other food production processing, as well as on all transportation and while sleeping in bunks. Wisconsin’s orders also require employers to provide sanitized cloth face coverings, to disinfect common areas and facilities and to provide hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer where migrants cook, eat, sleep and work, including in the fields.

We have a small window of time: Maryland must get serious now about protecting the lives of all our essential workers. Maryland needs mandated requirements and our state agencies – the Maryland Departments of Agriculture, Labor and Health – need to proactively inspect and enforce. Nobody should have to choose between life or a paycheck.

— AMY K. LIEBMAN AND DEVON PAYNE-STURGES

Amy K. Liebman, MPA, based in Salisbury, is the Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network

Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH, is part of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

This commentary also represents the views of the Smart on Pesticides Coalition, with 105 organizations and businesses in Maryland. The Smart on Pesticides Maryland coalition, spearheaded by the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, works to protect Marylanders and the natural systems we depend upon from the toxic impacts of pesticides. The coalition includes 105 organizations, and institutions representing communities, businesses, health care providers, farmers, environmentalists, waterkeepers, interfaith congregants as well as environmental justice, public health and wildlife advocates.