PhotoA new report finds that workers in the food industry endure some of the lowest wages, poorest working conditions, fewest benefits, least opportunity for advancement and poorest safety training of any job in the U.S.

Aside from the effect on the food service workers, the poor working conditions expose consumers to health and safety risks that could be avoided, according to the report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, which looks at wages and working conditions of workers across the entire food chain -- a sector that employs 20 million people in the U.S., comprising one-sixth of the nation's workforce.

The report is based on nearly 700 surveys and interviews with workers and employers in food production, processing, distribution, retail and service, which collectively sell over $1.8 trillion dollars in goods and services annually, accounting for over 13 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product.

According to the new report, there are some good jobs in the food system (13.5% of workers surveyed earn livable wages), but the vast majority are incredibly low-wage, with little or no access to paid sick days and health benefits, with dire consequences for consumers. More than 86 percent of workers reported earning subminimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce.

"Most people don't think about the millions of food system workers who make it possible for us to shop in grocery stores or eat in restaurants," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "This report is intended to make these people visible, and serve as a wake-up call for policy makers, employers and consumers to make the entire system more just." 

Key findings

  • Lack of Benefits: Seventy-nine percent of food system workers do not have a single paid sick day, or do not know if they have paid sick days, and 58 percent lack health coverage. Consequently, 53 percent have admitted to working while sick.
  • Reliance on Public Support: Food system workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. Food industry employees are also more likely receive Medicaid than other industries. Nearly 28% of food system employees are on Medicaid, compared to 19.36% of all industries. Due to a lack of employer-provided health benefits, more than one third of all workers surveyed (34.8%) report using the emergency room for primary health care. In addition, 80 percent of these workers are unable to pay for such care. 
  • Poor Quality of Life: A full 10 percent reported working more than 10 hours per day, and the vast majority of those reported working 60 or more hours per week. Almost half of the workers also reported working multiple jobs to make ends meet. 
  • Lack of Upward Mobility: Despite taking on more duties, 81 percent never received a promotion.
  • Improper Safety Training: More than half of all workers surveyed (52 percent) reported that they did not receive health and safety training from their employers. Almost one-third of all food system workers (32.7%) reported that their employers did not always provide necessary equipment to do their jobs.
  • Gender and Race Discrimination: While about one quarter of Black and Latino workers and almost 40 percent of Asian workers reported earning less than the minimum wage, only 13.5 percent of white workers surveyed reported earning less than the minimum wage. Not surprisingly given these differences, more than one third of workers surveyed reported feeling that they had been discriminated against by their employer. Women food system workers take home slightly less than men in the food system; women earn median weekly wages of $400, while men reported a median weekly take-home of $421.

The report examines the five core food occupations and industries in the food system: farmworkers (production), slaughterhouse and other processing facilities workers (processing), warehouse workers (distribution), grocery store workers (retail), and restaurant and food service workers (service). It examines how corporate consolidation throughout the food chain has created universal impacts on workers in terms of low wages, small to midsize employers in terms of unfair competition, and consumers in terms of food quality and diversity. Employers interviewed unanimously commented on how multinational food corporations receiving government subsidies and tax breaks and buying up their own suppliers has created unfair and unmanageable competition.



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