There are nearly 20 million food system workers in the United States, that range from production, farmers, processing, distribution, retail and food service. That’s 1 in 5 people employed in the entire private sector. Most food system workers make minimum wage, have little to no upward mobility, and do not receive any health benefits. Additionally, they are subjected to poor working conditions, and discrimination.
Low wages keep full-time food system workers earning below the national federal poverty level. This includes tipped positions in the service industry. In a report The Hands that Feed Us by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, states:
“(F)ood 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 system workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. They also reported working in environments with health and safety violations, long work hours with few breaks, and lack of access to health benefits.”
In 2010, corporate executives made an annual income that averaged over $150,000 while front line workers, which encompass 86% of food system workers, earned an annual median salary under $19,000. Executives of large food corporations reportedly earn millions of dollars per year.
Profile of the average food chain worker
The majority of food system workers are non-immigrant, white males ages 25-44 with a high school degree, some with college credits (no degree). According to the report, education may “make little or no difference with regard to food system worker’s wages”.
Nearly 40% of food system workers earn a poverty, or minimum wage, 23% earn less than minimum wage, over 25% earn over more than minimum wage that is still considered a low wage rather than a living wage, and only 13.5% earn a living wage that enables them to be self-sufficient.
Some more statistics to consider:
40% work more than 40 hours a week
79% don’t have paid sick days (or don’t know if they do)
83% don’t have employer health insurance
58% don’t have any health care insurance at all
53% have worked when sick, for an average of three days at a time
25% lack transportation to get medical care/appointments
74% have never given an opportunity for advancement
81% never received a promotion
22% don’t receive a 30-minute lunch break for an 8-hour work shift
8% received no lunch break at all
Due to a lack of sick pay and the fear of job-loss, sick workers can directly affect, and infect, the consumer. Due to a lack of health insurance benefits, only 24% of food system workers go to a private doctor, 34% seek medical treatment at an urgent care facility or hospital, and most workers cannot afford to pay for treatment that they received.
The food industry has a high turnover rate, which ends up costing an employer an average of $6000 per turnover. Turnover can be reduced, and productivity increased when employees stay at jobs that provide a fair wage and offer opportunities for growth and mobility. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) encourages employers to provide paid sick days, make training and promotions available, pay tipped workers at least $5 per hour, and pay non-tipped workers at least $9 per hour.
The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) offers certification to worker representatives with a commitment to food-justice standards, and for improving transparency to consumers. Their claim is that a truly sustainable food system includes sustainable business practices with regard to the employees.