The Food Chain Workers Alliance has released a report that states that more than half of all employees in the food industry work while sick because they can’t afford to take time off and that most food workers are underpaid. This is the first survey that studied income and working conditions of employees in the entire food chain.
Most states have prohibitions against contagious employees working with food. And restaurant and food facility owners are responsible for making sure their employees are not transmitting disease. In 2012 alone, we have reported on twelve outbreaks of foodborne illness that were traced back to a sick employee.
The survey also found that only 13.5% of employees in this industry earn a livable wage, and most jobs are very low wage. The report, titled “The Hands That Feed Us” found that “more than 86% of workers reported earning sub minimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce.” In fact, food workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.
The group also found that 79% of food workers do not have paid sick days or know if they do. The CDC, in their “Ill Food Worker Study” found that “transmission of pathogens from food workers to the food they handle is implicated as a contributing factor in approximately 20% of foodborne illness outbreaks.”
In addition, 58% of these employees do not have health care coverage, which means they may not be tested to see if they have been sickened by a pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7. Those infected with that bacteria can continue to shed it even after they have recovered.
Training is a critical component of any profession. But more than half of the workers in the survey said that their employers did not provide health and safety training. Fifty-seven percent of the surveyed employees said they have suffered an injury or health problems while working.
The Alliance interviewed 700 workers and employers in the fields of food production, distribution, processing, retail, and service sectors for this survey.