Eastern Shore, MD -- Today, a coalition of 108 organizations across Maryland released a video and accompanying sign-on letter bringing attention to the unsafe working conditions leading to a high rate of infections for workers at poultry plants, seafood plants, and farms across the Eastern Shore, and demanding action from Governor Hogan to better protect these employees.
“These workers drive a large part of Maryland’s economy, they’re responsible for providing us with our food, and they need to be fully protected,” says Lily Hawkins, Maryland Organizer for Food & Water Action. “While working conditions at places like poultry plants are notoriously unsafe and unhealthy, and many have fought before now to change the industry, the spread of COVID-19 adds new urgency to our mission.”
“Governor Hogan and his administration have a responsibility to protect essential workers, but right now they’re treating these people, many of whom are migrant workers and don’t have access to proper healthcare or legal resources, as disposable,” says Bonnie Raindrop, Outreach Coordinator at the Smart on Pesticides Coalition. “Hogan must issue an Executive Order promising widespread testing, appropriate personal protective measures, and guaranteed sick pay.”
“Few of these workers have paid sick leave. They can’t afford to miss work when they are ill, and many fear losing their jobs if they don’t show up when sick,” says Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental & Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinicians Network. “With only voluntary CDC and OSHA guidelines, our food workers are being told they can either risk infection and even death, or not earn an income.”
Over the past several months, the Eastern Shore’s poultry plants and food processing facilities have become hotspots for COVID-19, as cramped and unsafe working conditions, low wages, and lack of sick pay have led to the rampant spread of the illness. Initially, the Hogan administration refused to release data on what rates of infection looked like at specific plants, but released some data following a sign-on letter from advocacy organizations. Still, the administration did not complete these demands in their entirety, and left many with doubts that workers were receiving adequate protections.
"We continue to improve our understanding of the potential for airborne spread of COVID-19,” says Dr. Devon Corcia Payne-Sturges, Associate Professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “Recently, the World Health Organization revised their position acknowledging ‘emerging evidence’ that people can catch the virus from droplets floating in the air. This adds to the urgency to require protective measures, including adequate masks, distancing at work places and employer-supplied housing, improved ventilation, and providing recurring testing at workplaces and residences, as well as contact tracing."
"The great majority of these low-wage food production jobs are filled by immigrants,” says Sulma Guzmán, Policy Director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. “They are Brown, they are Black. Statistically, this racial group is twice as likely to die from COVID-19."
The video calls for “comprehensive, enforceable protections for the workers who, quite literally, feed Maryland,” in the form of an Executive Order from Governor Hogan. The accompanying sign-on letter provides a space for individuals to add their own names in support.
Workgroup members responsible for this campaign include Debbie Jeon, ACLU-Md; Leila Borrero-Krouse, CATA Farmworker Support Committee; Amy Liebman, Migrant Clinicians Network; Katie Tracy, Center for Progressive Reform; Sulma Guzman, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.; Iris Figueroa, Farmworker Justice; Tyler Smith, Earthjustice; Jason Davidson, Friends of the Earth; Emily Ranson, Md. Clean Water Action; Gwen DuBois, M.D., Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility; Kate Breimann, Environment Md; Ruth Berlin, Md Pesticide Education Network; Sally Dworak-Fisher, Public Justice Center; Bonnie Raindrop, Md. Smart on Pesticides Coalition.