The Clean Water Blog

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Pass the Maryland Essential Workers Act

Clean Water Action, along with a number of other organizations, has joined with Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection in supporting a package of legislation to protect Maryland’s seafood and poultry processing and farm workers from COVID-19. This package includes paid sick leave expansion, personal protective equipment for workers, increased testing, and increased protections for workers to advocate for themselves against dangerous working conditions. Farm workers, and seafood and poultry processing workers have been left out of worker protections in Maryland repeatedly, and though a number of other states have passed expanded protections for these essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis, Maryland has yet to follow suit. 

The Maryland General Assembly needs to pass the Maryland Essential Workers Act (HB581/SB486).

Farmworkers, and poultry and seafood processing workers are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 for a number of reasons:  

  • They are unable to perform their job duties from home, meaning that they are unable to socially isolate. 

  • These industries often operate in areas where there are few or no other job prospects, and recruit groups who struggle to find work, such as immigrants, people who have been incarcerated, or those lacking higher education. These workers rely on plants and work sites where working conditions are unsafe as their only way to earn income, meaning that advocating for better working conditions risks their employment, and it would be difficult for them to find other work, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. 

  • Workers are largely Black and Brown, demographic groups with higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19. 

  • Workers are not provided with adequate personal protective equipment, and must work in crowded, poorly ventilated, indoor facilities. 

  • The crowded housing and working conditions that they face make it impossible for these workers to socially distance or take other basic protections against COVID-19.

  • Workers are often exposed to dangerous chemicals that affect their lungs. 

  • Workers are not afforded paid sick leave, meaning they must come to work sick or lose income. 

Our farm, poultry, and seafood workers are always undervalued for the difficult and essential work that they do. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become more clear than ever. 

Farm workers are performing crucial work to keep Maryland’s food supply chain running smoothly during a global crisis. These workers are exempt from Maryland’s laws on paid sick leave, meaning that they cannot take time off when they are sick. At the best of times, this exemption is ill advised, but during a pandemic it is downright cruel. We cannot force the people who provide our food to choose between their health and earning an income. 

The lack of protections are not only a concern for seafood and poultry processing and farmworkers, but for all of us. The meat processing industry has been a major driver of the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Unsafe working conditions at a poultry processing plant drove an early COVID-19 spike in Salisbury, MD, turning the town into a COVID hotspot in April of 2020. Workers in poultry plants are still working shoulder to shoulder on processing lines, without being provided adequate personal protective equipment. This negligence on the part of poultry employers is a danger to their workers, their families, the healthcare workers who treat them when they fall ill, and to anyone else who may come in contact with infected workers.

In order to lessen the spread of COVID-19, and keep our grocery store shelves stocked, we must make sure that these essential workers are granted protections from COVID-19. We must stop employers from treating their workers as disposable, and make sure that they are able to work safely without fear of infection, or lost income.