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Inside Washington

USDA urged to prioritize food worker protections

Perdue Farms Perdue Farms Temperature Checking.jpg
Perdue Farms requires temperature checks before food workers can start work each day.
Food and ag groups also seek partnership in vaccinations for essential workers.

In the recently passed COVID-19 assistance package, Congress provided no less than $1.5 billion to fund purchases of food for distribution to those in need, and to provide worker protection measures, and retooling support for farmers, farmers markets and food processors, with the flexibility to spend additional funds to address COVID-19-related needs in the food supply chain. While another round of $1.5 billion has been promised for the food box program, USDA has yet to commit additional funds to protect workers and ensure the continuity of the food supply chain, causing those on Capitol Hill to ask for immediate prioritization.

Representatives Jim Costa, D-Calif., Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., led 70 colleagues in a bipartisan letter to USDA urging them to allocate specific funding to protect the nation’s essential agricultural workers.

“My father was a farmworker, so I know the hard work that goes into putting food on the table for our families. Growers, ranchers, and vintners in my district want to protect their essential workers from the virus, but they need our help,” says Carbajal. “Agriculture workers are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, which is why I worked hard to ensure they are protected in the latest COVID-19 relief package. I urge the Agriculture Secretary to move quickly to protect our workers, food supply chain, and public health from COVID-19.”

“Central Washington’s agricultural community was hit hard by COVID-19,” says Newhouse. “Our farmers and ranchers have been working around the clock to protect their employees from this virus, but they need help. Agriculture workers are essential – to our communities, to keeping food on our tables, to ensuring a strong food supply chain throughout our country. I worked to include federal funding that will help keep these hardworking men and women safe and healthy, and now we must deliver.”

In the Senate, current Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also lead advocates calling for the prioritization of funds for food workers.

“The Trump Administration is failing to strengthen the food supply chain and protect workers,” said Senator Stabenow. “Congress gave USDA the funds and flexibility to help producers and processors keep their workers safe. In order to repair our food supply and feed families in need, USDA must prioritize safety in addition to food purchases.”

Western Growers president and CEO Dave Puglia adds, “From day one, farmers have stepped up and made significant investments to protect their workforces and will be asked to do even more as the pandemic extends into a second year. We are thankful that Congress is not asking farmers to bear the full burden of these mounting expenses and strongly encourage USDA to follow through with an allocation of meaningful funds to further promote agricultural worker safety.”

Jim Bair, USApple president and CEO, says in March, apple growers began incurring significant costs providing workers with PPE and costly facility and housing retrofits. He appreciated the acknowledgment of this significant need and also is urging USDA to act and provide grants and loans for the purpose of protecting workers from COVID-19.

“Profit margins were already razor-thin or nonexistent and these costs have been a huge and unexpected burden,” says Bair. 

Robert L. Guenther, United Fresh Produce Association senior vice president, public policy, says, “With every stage of the emerging COVID-19 crisis, our industry has worked hard to embrace all public health advice for social distancing, personal and facility hygiene, face coverings and more.  We strongly believe that by allocating funding and resources towards measures focused on worker safety, our industry will continue to build on our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our employees, the safety of the products they harvest, and the health of all Americans who will continue to consume and demand fresh produce as part of their daily intake to fight back against this virus.”

Meat, poultry workers see lower cases

New analysis of independent data for 2020 show that reported new COVID-19 infection rates amongst meat and poultry workers were five times lower in December than in May, while rates in the general population rocketed up by nine times in the same period, the North American Meat Institute says.  

According to data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), the meat and poultry sector was reported to have an average of 19.91 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in December, compared to an average of 98.39 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in May. 

The New York Times reports that during the same period, the average new case rate for the U.S. population rose from 7.11 cases per 100,000 people per day in May to 63.01 cases per 100,000 people per day in December.

Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts says, "This new data further demonstrates that the more than $1.5 billion spent on  comprehensive protections implemented since the spring reversed the pandemic’s trajectory and is protecting the selfless men and women who have kept Americans’ refrigerators full and our farm economy working throughout this crisis.”

Vaccination coordination

The Meat Institute and the United Food & Commercial Workers, America’s largest food workers union, jointly urged state governors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that frontline meat and poultry workers should be amongst the first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations after healthcare workers and people in long-term care.

On Friday, 15 food and agriculture trade associations transmitted a letter to President-elect Joe Biden requesting that he designate a federal coronavirus vaccine coordinator in each of the 50 states as well as territories.

The coordinators’ responsibilities would be to liaise directly with state, territory and local public health agencies while providing access to the resources of the federal government to ensure an efficient distribution of the vaccine among priority populations. The coordinators would also assist in developing and strengthening partnerships among private sector employers to facilitate vaccine distribution among our essential workers.

“If your Administration should find it helpful, we as an industry will provide a comprehensive list of companies that will step forward to offer their partnership on vaccine distribution, including their geographic locations and the number of workers they employ. We hope this list could serve as a blueprint for a public-private partnership led by the Federal Coordinators,” the letter states.

Many employers have expressed their strong interest in supporting state, territory, and local public health agencies in vaccine distribution to essential workers. In the letter, the groups urge the incoming Administration to take advantage of this opportunity.

“Many companies across the food supply chain have retained nurses and healthcare professionals to assist with vaccinations when they are available. Please take advantage of this opportunity to establish a robust public-private partnership to meet this challenging time,” the letter notes.


TAGS: Policy
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