Mar 22, 2020 - Economy

The workers feeding America

Illustration of Uncle Sam wearing an apron and name tag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As worried shoppers buy in bulk, stress is mounting for retailers, warehouses and farms — which need more labor at the very time people are being told to stay at home.

Why it matters: America isn't running out of food. But there's increasing strain on the supply chain as the workers who produce and deliver our groceries are sheltering at home, quarantined or are (justifiably) too spooked to show up for work.

“The supply chain used to flow very evenly, but when you have surges, it takes more people," says Brian Beattie, senior vice president of sales at Lineage Logistics, which runs a large network of cold storage facilities.

  • Farms are anticipating labor shortages as the State Department delays the processing of H-2A visa workers from Mexico.
  • Truckers are finding it difficult to do their jobs as truck spots, restaurants and motels close their doors, reports WSJ.
  • "As grocery employees toil, some of their supermarket bosses can't sign up reinforcements fast enough," per NBC News.

And as the virus continues to spread, these workers are often in high-risk scenarios, working in close quarters for long hours.

  • This week, Amazon reported its first case of coronavirus, at a U.S. warehouse in Queens, per The Atlantic.
  • Many food producers say they won't be able to operate at full capacity while practicing social distancing.
  • American agriculture relies on 250,000 H-2A visa workers each year, and the industry is lobbying the government to make sure they can enter the country.

There are some efforts underway to assist food workers, but not enough, experts tell us.

  • Three states — Minnesota, Vermont and Michigan — have classified grocery workers as "essential" workers, making them eligible for child care and other benefits alongside health care workers, law enforcement and first responders. (Look for other states to follow suit.)
  • Food workers would be better protected with face masks, but there is a national shortage — even hospital workers don't have enough.
  • Robot food-pickers and autonomous trucks could one day prove helpful, but for now, the technology isn't ready to replace humans entirely.

"We don't know how long of a long term this is," says Ananth Iyer, a professor of supply chain management at Purdue University.

  • He says that food companies must adopt new policies to enforce social distancing at work, even if they're slightly less efficient.
  • "I'm hopeful that a lot of the manufacturing side and the supply-chain side can be managed in such a way to protect the employees and continue to get the product out," Iyer says. "This needs to happen yesterday."

The bottom line: Without the workers needed to harvest, produce and deliver our food, the entire supply chain breaks down. And governments and companies are lagging in their efforts to ensure that these vital workers are protected amid the pandemic.

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