‘We’re Not Heroes; We’re Sacrificial.’ Workers Carry The Burden Of Colorado’s Food Supply Chain

Costco shopper groceries during coronavirus pandemic
David Zalubowski/AP
A shopper wearing a surgical mask pushes his cart out of a Costco warehouse after buying household supplies, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Colorado’s place in the global food chain grabbed national attention on April 10, when Vice President Mike Pence discussed the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 at Greeley’s JBS meatpacking plant. At the time, 14 JBS employees had been hospitalized, and dozens had tested positive. By the end of that day, two employees had died.

"All the people that are working in food supply—from farmers to meatpackers to distributors to truckers to grocers—continue to have our gratitude," Pence said. Health officials shut down the JBS plant, which remained closed for around two weeks.  

Around the country, crowded food facilities like the JBS plant have seen COVID-19 spread through the ranks of their essential workers. It’s put a spotlight on the safety of the supply chain and the workers who forge that chain every day. And while supplies are still holding up overall, officials worry about future shortages, and places where the chain’s links could break.

Food supply basically operates like this: farmers and ranchers create the food, processors process and often package it, distributors send it where it belongs, and stores and service-industry spots sell it. To keep all parts of the process in working order during a pandemic, employers have to protect workers. Both companies and governments have taken some steps, since the pandemic began, to keep workers socially distant, get them paid sick leave, and provide protective equipment. But gaps in policy and practice leave some workers vulnerable. 

On farms, where food begins, worker safety is difficult, given both the demographics of the workforce and the physicality of the labor. 

United Farm Workers, the largest farmworker union in the country, has focused on educating laborers. “Making sure that workers had the best practices and trying to call on growers to implement those best practices,” says Armando Elenes, UFW’s secretary-treasurer.  

On the grower side, that includes changes like making hand-washing stations more readily accessible, establishing cleaning procedures for equipment and surfaces, and providing more shaded space for breaks so employees can rest while still saying six feet from others; on the worker side, it means using those stations frequently, following the procedures while being safe with cleaners’ chemicals, and practicing social distancing even during downtime. Union growers, Elenes says, have gotten on board with a safer new reality. 

“We do need all the others, primarily in the non-union sectors, to step up a lot more.”

Social distancing is challenging for farmworkers when they’re off the clock, too. During growing season, crop employees live with three or four other people, on average, according to a policy brief co-written by Colorado State University’s Alexandra Hill, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. 

In crowded worker housing, the virus can spread quickly. “We’re afraid all these facilities are ticking time bombs,” says Elenes. 

But social distancing is critical since many farmworkers don’t have health insurance and can be reluctant to get medical care. Three-quarters of hired crop workers are foreign-born and about two-thirds of those are undocumented immigrants, according to Hill’s report. The Trump administration has said people should be able to get tested without fearing arrest or deportation, but whether the fear is warranted or not, workers may be afraid of testing’s repercussions on their ability to stay in the U.S. and work. 

On top of that, more than half of all crop workers don’t have health insurance, the CSU researcher said, which can create a barrier to diagnosis or treatment. That’s especially true since the median pay for an agricultural worker, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, was just $25,840 in 2019. That salary makes medical bills hard or impossible to pay out-of-pocket. 

Since the pandemic has spread in Colorado, the CSU Task Force on Colorado Food Supply is fighting to get farmworkers better access to paid sick leave, something California recently did. 

UFW cites sick pay as one of its most important concerns during the pandemic. Since the California victory, the organization is shifting advocacy for the same thing to other states. If that succeeds, the challenge, of course, becomes enforcement: “How do we make sure those laws on the books are laws in the field?” says Elenes.

After the farm, food heads to a processor. This link in the chain has proven particularly problematic in Colorado. 

Six people have died and at least 245 people have contracted COVID-19 at the JBS meat plant in Weld County, which reopened April 24, after a two-week closure, amid controversy about safety and testing. The company had pledged to secure tests for every employee—a pledge for which it partnered with the federal government, Governor Jared Polis, Senator Cory Gardner, and Centennial State Lab — but during the closure, JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said the company simply asked employees to self-quarantine. 

“JBS USA has coordinated with and implemented guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment,” said Richardson. “In addition, we hired consulting epidemiologists from the University of Colorado to evaluate our facility.” 

On-site testing, she continued, is available now that the plant is open.

On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order that uses the Defense Production Act to overrule local health officials and keep meat processing plants open, declaring them “critical infrastructure.” The order includes guidelines, but not requirements, for how companies can make conditions safer for employees. A few days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, among 115 meat and poultry processors in 19 states, 4,913 workers had contracted COVID-19, and 20 workers had died, as of April 27, the day before the president’s order. 

According to state data, other food companies, including Aurora Organic Dairy, Mountain States Rosen Company, and Leprino Foods in Weld County; Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Adams County; Rocky Mountain Bakehouse in Arapahoe County; Custom Made Meals, Empire Meats Denver Processing, and King Soopers Bakery in Denver County ; and Leprino Foods and Cargill in Fort Morgan, have also had outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Cargill’s outbreak has killed one employee and has, so far, sickened at least 56 others. “We are working around the clock with farmers and our customers—the nation’s food retailers, service providers and restaurant chains—to feed the world safely and responsibly during this unprecedented time,” Cargill’s Daniel Sullivan told CPR in a statement. “Our values—do the right thing, put people first and reach higher—are guiding every decision we make.”

Sullivan said the company is implementing “temperature testing, providing and encouraging the use of face coverings, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, prohibiting visitors from our facilities, stopping international and domestic air travel, adopting social distancing practices where possible and offering shift flexibility, staggered breaks, increased spacing in work areas and waiving co-pays for coronavirus testing for employees.” 

Employees are also getting 14 days of paid leave “for COVID-related needs,” with a required 14-day quarantine for any employee who tests positive for COVID-19 as well as those that person had close contact with. 

As of April 3, all Colorado food and beverage manufacturers, including meat processors, must provide four days of paid sick leave to employees “with flu-like symptoms who are being tested for coronavirus COVID-19 or who are under instruction from a health care provider to quarantine or isolate due to a risk of having COVID-19.”

When asked if closing the facility was an option in the event of a larger outbreak, Sullivan replied only, “We are running our response playbooks at every facility, including Fort Morgan, and are monitoring the situation closely.” Cargill has temporarily shuttered plants in other locations, including Pennsylvania; Minnesota; and High River, Alberta

After it’s processed, food soon gets distributed, and typically much of it goes to restaurants, cafeterias, event venues, and more. 

But during the coronavirus pandemic, some distributors have shifted their businesses to focus more on grocery stores and going directly to consumers. 

Take LoCo Food Distribution, a Fort Collins wholesaler that sells locally sourced products to places like universities, hospitals, hotels, schools, restaurants, coffeeshops, and taprooms. Their territory ranges from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs. 

“Almost a third of our customers closed down,” says founder Elizabeth Mozer. LoCo wanted to help its own bottom line, as well as those of the 130 Colorado vendors whose products it distributes. “We wanted to give people as much opportunity as possible to stay afloat,” says Mozer.

In the past, the company had always declined requests from individuals. Now, they are temporarily selling their food to the public. “Who doesn’t need a case of burritos instead of one at a time?” says Mozer.

LoCo has given its truck drivers face masks, hand sanitizer, and germ-killing wipes. “And hazard pay as well,” says Mozer, “because it’s scary out there.” Still, she says, “most of our customers are being cognizant of social distancing.”

Shamrock Foods, a large Phoenix company with distribution warehouses in Denver, declined an interview, but said in a statement, “We have looked to public health experts and medical professionals to guide our preparedness and response efforts.”

Shamrock sends its food to restaurants, hotels, schools and the like, and such distribution channels are different from the ones that link food to store aisles. That difference--as well as differences in packaging, and product size—are why you might have seen empty shelves at King Soopers and read about farmers dumping excess milk. 

“Making that pivot from wholesale packaging to individual resale packaging takes time,” says Mozer. “You might not have the machinery to do a different-sized package.” Grocers, she says, are trying to figure out which new providers can offer them reasonably-sized supplies where they’re short. 

Although grocery workers are on the front lines of the pandemic, they, like farm workers, receive little pay for their large risk. 

The median salary of a cashier is $11.37, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And generous sick leave isn’t standard. During the coronavirus crisis, some stores—like King Soopers, City Market, Natural Grocers and Safeway—are offering 14 days of paid sick leave to those with a positive COVID-19 test or a mandate to quarantine. Natural Grocers also offers one week of paid leave to employees who are sick but can’t get tested. Which happens, because there aren’t enough tests, so workers could show up for their shifts because they can’t get paid time off. 

“I think that discourages people from revealing that they’re sick,” one clerk at a metro Denver Natural Grocers store told CPR. She asked that her name be withheld because she was speaking without her employer’s approval.

Personal protection for grocery workers became mandatory on April 17, when Gov. Polis issued an executive order that required grocery workers to wear masks, and, sometimes, gloves.  

But by the time the mask order happened, the virus had been in Colorado for at least six weeks, and mask use and social distancing by customers and staff had been spotty. Some stores have plastic partitions between cashiers and customers; many have someone standing sentry next to carts, wiping them down before pushing them to customers; one-way aisles are now common. At Walgreens, tape on the floor delineates a six-foot distance, and at Target, slick, uniform signage communicates to customers that business is not as usual. 

Still, today, many places in Colorado don’t require customers to wear masks, which means workers have no real say in their exposure to the public’s pathogens. Some cities—like Aspen and Boulder—have now mandated such mask-wearing. 

Customers, says the Natural Grocers clerk, have been one of the most trying parts of the pandemic—in part because they’re afraid when they enter the store, and they project their nerves onto the employees. “Keep your comments and your fear and your anxiety to yourself,” she says, “because I think grocery store workers have enough to deal with right now.” 

While she isn’t too worried about catching the virus herself, it does affect her daily life. “I can’t see family or friends because of the exposure I have,” she says. 

The risks are real: Karen Donna Haws, a 67-year-old employee at King Soopers in Centennial, died on April 10. The Tri-County Health Department closed a WalMart Supercenter in Aurora after an employee, a member of the employee’s family, and a contractor all died from the novel coronavirus.

For her part, the Natural Grocers clerk is mostly happy with her employer, which has raised wages amidst the pandemic and pays above the national average for the type of work she does. But she is tired of customers telling her she’s a hero for keeping food on their tables, given what society is generally willing to pay people in her position. 

“Don’t call me a hero unless you’re going to raise my base wage,” she says. “We’re not heroes; we’re sacrificial.” 

Rather than risk a trip to the store, people who have the financial resources may order groceries or restaurant food delivered to their homes. 

That food often arrives at the door courtesy of third-party services like Postmates, Instacart, UberEats, or Grubhub, which all use gig workers. 

Colorado’s Steve Johnson has been driving for rideshare services for six years. Around three years ago, he created the website www.uberlyftdrivers.com, to give gig workers information on their industry. 

Lately, Johnson has been encouraging drivers who once focused on passenger services--like Uber and Lyft--to pivot to food delivery. “Sign up for Eats. Sign up with Doordash. Sign up with Postmates,” he says. “Whatever you want.” 

Johnson says that customers are, by and large, tipping their food-deliverers well and opting for contactless delivery, where the worker leaves the goods by the closed front door, saving everyone from accidentally breathing on each other.

But drivers’ safety often becomes their own responsibility. “Instacart promised all Instacart employees a few weeks ago that they’d get a care package—hand sanitizer, a box of gloves,” says Johnson. “Not one person I know got that care package.” His contacts are not alone; Instacart says its shoppers started receiving their kits in mid April that the company has enough inventory for all to eventually receive one. On May 1, Instacart workers—along with those from Target and Amazon, among others—began a strike for better conditions.

A lot of drivers also have to make their own masks--even if they’re not crafty. “Most of them are wearing something,” says Johnson. “Some might make you laugh, like, ‘Really?’ but at least they’re trying,” he says. “They understand. They have families. They’re trying not to bring it home.”