The COVID-19 crisis has thrust food and agriculture into uncharted territory and put our workers on the front line of one of the most critical battles in the history of the United States. Vice President Mike Pence said it best yesterday during a White House press briefing: “Some of the most important people are working in the food supply. From the farmers, to the ranchers, to our processors, to our distributors, to our truckers, to our grocers. Americans are keeping food on the table for our fellow Americans. … To all of the hard-working people working in food supply today, thank you. … Thank you for showing up to work every day.”
When the federal government, led by the President of the United States, defined who among our nation’s workforce is considered “critical infrastructure industry” employees, workers throughout the food industry were near the top of the list. The President said on March 16: “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.” Workers in these industries are taking this “special responsibility” seriously, ensuring public health and safety, safeguarding our economy, and protecting our national security. Since the President and the Department of Homeland Security made that declaration, most state governments have followed suit by designating food industry workers as essential or critical to state and local economies as we battle the coronavirus pandemic.
The essential critical industries working to care for, feed, and protect Americans, in addition to performing countless other jobs fundamental to the continuity of the nation’s necessary functions, are selflessly serving the nation during this time of crisis. Workers in these critical industries are serving even as they face challenges including lack of childcare, transportation, health concerns and exhaustion. These workers deserve more than a pat on the back—they deserve government aid that is equal to the importance of their work.
While the work of our public health professionals, first responders, and public safety employees is unquestioned, we must also adequately recognize the service of food industry workers who protect our food security. It is for good reason that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that Americans stay home. But for those working in our food industry—on a farm, in a processing plant, transporting goods to distribution centers and stores, and stocking shelves and selling food—this precaution is not an option. Their work is essential.
Their sacrifice is great. They cannot care for their families at home. They are forced to make arrangements for children who are no longer able to attend school or daycare. They are interacting with the public or their colleagues each day. They are warriors, and the federal government must recognize their work in the next coronavirus relief package negotiated by Congress in the coming days. Whether by exempting these essential critical infrastructure workers from federal taxes and requiring immediate adjustments to their tax withholdings, or by providing direct payments, the federal government should stand by these workers as they serve as the nation’s lifeline during this difficult time.
All food industry groups and our members are appreciative of the bold steps Congress has taken thus far to respond to the coronavirus crisis in the United States. But we must do more not to shortchange food industry workers. That’s why our groups are working together to urge Congress to target future financial assistance in the next coronavirus response package to the dedicated and talented men and women working on the front lines of this epidemic in food processing, food retail, food transportation, and throughout the food supply chain.
We urge Congress to deliver this vital assistance and not to recreate the wheel when determining which workers are essential or critical. DHS has done that already and most states have adopted the DHS policy. We know that food industry workers, regardless of their position in the supply chain, are essential and now is the time to recognize their effort with real, tangible government aid.
To the many showing up to work for America’s essential critical industries each and every day through this outbreak—thank you. You have our deepest gratitude.
Michael Dykes, DVM, President & CEO, International Dairy Foods Association