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  • Writer's pictureJosey Goggin

Empty Shelves, Sick Employees

A couple of nights ago I went to our local grocery store to pick up a few of the staples we were running low on, milk, eggs, flour, fruit and veggies.

There was no milk, no eggs, no flour on the shelves. None.

I had a moment of peeved irritation, and then, a stark fear for all those people out there waiting on food stamps to replenish their basic stores, for all those people frantically trying to keep those shelves stocked.

I was planning to pick up a gallon of milk. I still had a half full one at home. We weren’t out. I was simply stocking up to do a better job of sheltering in place. As I looked at the empty shelves and then around at the harried grocery clerks restocking them, I thought about how the coronavirus is exposing glaring inequities in our culture.

In many places, we have been told to shelter in place unless our jobs fall under essential services. Fire fighters and police and medical workers were immediately obvious to most people. Food supply is so ubiquitous for many that those who work in it have become largely invisible.

But as people locked down and stocked up, holes in that supply suddenly began to appear. First it was toilet paper, then rice and beans, yeast, and now eggs and milk, that disappeared off the shelves.

Some of us simply shifted the work of shopping off our shoulders and onto gig services, like Instacart, and mass distributors, like Amazon. Pull up a shopping app, or a website, enter your choices, push a button, and, magically, it appears at your door. But like all things that appear effortless and magic, a lot of work happens behind the scenes.

Food doesn’t just miraculously appear on our doorsteps. People pick out those requested items, package them up, and carry them to our homes.

Yet in the United States, we barely treat those people like they exist. We certainly don’t afford them the basic protections people facing the brunt of a pandemic, and ensuring the rest of us eat, should expect, paid sick leave, safety protections like soap and wipes and hand sanitizer, hazard pay for risking their health and lives while doing their jobs. In the past week wildcat strikes over coronavirus safety concerns in our food supply have popped up around the country, at Whole Foods[1], Instacart[2], Amazon[3], and Perdue Farms[4]. Business is booming for these services, and unlike most of the economy, they are hiring hundreds of thousands of new employees. That they are more focused on a profit margin than societal health is a dreadful example of the worst of our societal priorities and inequities. For it is not simply a matter of individual rights to a good life, a health life, a fulfilling life that are at stake here. It is not even simply about individual employee health being protected. It is about protecting every person they come into contact with, whether that is a fellow employee, customer, family member, or a roommate or friend.

Contact tracing each employee for these companies makes for a profoundly complex web.

A network that connects us all. We need to protect the health of everyone in this pandemic. This means guaranteed sick leave, full health and safety precautions, and pay that reflects the value of their service in our survival, for every food supply employee, from the fields and the barns, to the store shelves and delivery drivers.

And if that means shrinking the bottom line or exercising patience while food supply employees guard all our health, so be it.

It means a more just world for all of us.

Nonviolent actions employed:

[1] NVA #112: Reporting “sick” (sick-in)

[2] NVA #110: Slowdown Strike

[3] NVA#51:Walk-outs

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