The report, The Hands That Feed Us, is an unnerving account of this country’s food industry and the state of its workers – a place where just 13.5% of workers surveyed earn livable wages, meaning about 17 million food service workers (of roughly 20 million nationwide) are paid too little to make ends meet. A full 60% of food service workers reported earning poverty-level wages or worse, and almost a quarter of those surveyed earned a sub-minimum wage.
It gets worse. The report finds that 79% of food workers – spanning the entire production line from farming to distribution and service – do not have paid sick days, and 58% lack health coverage. Is it any surprise that 53% of those surveyed admitted to working sick? Many of these workers (65%) reported working while sick due to a lack of paid sick days, while 43% said they feared losing their job if they didn’t come in to work.
“In the winter, I had a lot of colds, my throat closed, a fever, a headache. I had to work like that one day. Then I called to say that I wasn’t going to work, but they said they would punish me because no one could take my place,” said one line cook.
The report also points out a great irony: many food workers actually face more food insecurity than average. Over 30% of workers surveyed experienced either marginal, low, or very low food security, which spans the range from general anxiety of food shortages to actual reports of reduced food intake.
Taxpayers are footing much of the bill for the lack of benefits and low wages paid by the food service industry. Nearly 28 percent of food system workers are on Medicaid, and almost 14 percent are on food stamps. Both of those numbers are roughly 1.5 times higher than the workforce as a whole.
While the report is certainly grim, the authors do suggest improvements that can be made to improve the lives of food system workers, including raising the federal minimum and sub-minimum wages, reducing occupational segregation to allow employees greater upward mobility, and increasing worker protections on the whole. It also recommends guaranteeing health benefits such as paid sick days, which many Seattle food workers will start earning this September.
By EOI Intern Bill Dow