Many Food Industry Workers Barely Getting By

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There’s a disturbing irony within the food industry: Many of its employees rely on food stamps.

The food sector accounts for 13% of our nation’s gross domestic product, collectively selling $1.8 trillion in goods and services. It employs about 20 million workers, or about one in five of all Americans working in the private sector.

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But even though we rely so much on the industry – it provides us the very substance that keeps us alive, after all – we’re barely (and sometimes not) paying its workers a living wage.

According to a new report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, only 13.5% of food industry workers earn livable wages. The median wage is $9.65 an hour, and 86% of workers are earning either subminimum, poverty or low wages.

Due to such depressed earnings, many food industry employees also struggle to just to eat, creating a rather depressing irony that those who feed us can barely feed themselves. Almost 14% of them rely on food stamps compared with 8.3% in all other industries. For the study, the organization interviewed 700 workers and employees in the five main sectors in food service: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.

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It’s not just poor wages that food industry workers have to deal with. Most (83%) also don’t have health insurance and, as a result, many (35%) rely on emergency rooms for treatment when they get sick. And not having insurance may actually be harming those who rely on the industry employees. More than half of food industry workers say they have worked when they’re sick, largely because they either don’t have paid sick days or don’t even know that they do (79%).

Just as troubling, many of them (40%) work more than 40 hours a week and a third say they don’t always receive lunch breaks.

The future for many in the industry doesn’t look much brighter. Few food industry employees get on-the-job training that could help them find a better job or move up the ladder. Three-quarters of those surveyed say there is no ongoing training by their employer and about the same number say they have never had an opportunity to apply for a better job. More than 80% have never received a promotion.

The organization that conducted the study suggests a few ways to fix the situation, such as increasing the minimum wage and forcing employers to guarantee workers’ health benefits. But that sort of legislation doesn’t look to be imminent on the national level. The sad irony inside the food industry is only likely to persist.