We called huge numbers of workers essential but didn’t raise their pay or respect their safety in the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s only now that most “essential” workers outside of health care are starting to get vaccinated. But that process is finally happening in more states, after just a few prioritized those workers in the early phases of the vaccine rollout.
Meatpacking workers are a key case. A ProPublica investigation in early February found that at least 250 meatpacking workers died of COVID-19 and more than 50,000 were infected amid the Trump administration protecting the industry over its workers and plant managers engaging in grotesque abuses. Now, The New York Times finds, meatpacking workers are eligible for vaccination in 26 states. In six states, they are eligible in some but not all counties.
JBS USA, one of the big companies in the industry, is offering workers $100 incentives to be vaccinated, and recently held a mass vaccination event at one of its plants. But the workers’ union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, played a major role in overcoming hesitancy on the part of workers.
“There was a lot of skepticism among members, for a lot of different reasons,” said Matt Utecht, the local president, in describing to the Times a months-long education process to get the vast majority of workers at the plant signed up to be vaccinated.
Meatpacking workers aren’t the only low-paid essential workers whose safety has been treated as an afterthought over the past year, of course. Other such workers are also becoming eligible for vaccination in many states, though in some they are being left out of vaccination plans. Grocery store, restaurant, and transportation workers in Massachusetts and Louisiana became eligible on Monday, along with several other categories of workers.
In Oregon, on the other hand, grocery and restaurant workers may not be eligible for vaccination until April 19, with Gov. Kate Brown saying that the decision to prioritize people aged 45 and older with comorbidities was made in the name of equity. Michigan grocery workers will become eligible for vaccination two weeks earlier than those in Oregon—but only because April 5 is the day everyone over age 16 will become eligible. Grocery and food service workers in Wayne County, however, are already being vaccinated, and food service and agricultural workers are eligible in the state as a whole. Maine is doing purely age-based vaccination at this point, so while some essential workers are eligible because they’re 50 or older—the threshold as of March 23—they get no special access.
“Starting out we were important, but now that the vaccines are being dispensed we’re not important anymore,” Michigan Kroger worker Lisa Wright told the Lansing State Journal. “It’s like we’re being pushed to the side.”
In other words, as with so many other pandemic policies, it’s up to each state to decide on the priority given to essential workers, and the responses have varied enormously. Meanwhile, grocery and food service workers, among so many others, are showing up every day for pay that’s often too low to pay the bills with.
Powered by WPeMatico