By Senator Lena C. Taylor
During most of 2020 and half of 2021, many Americans around the nation were told to basically, shelter in place. COVID-19 was ravishing our country, hundreds of thousands were dying and millions more were becoming infected. Public spaces emptied out, businesses shuttered their doors and our kitchen tables did double duty as a K12 classroom. As hospitals, and makeshift morgues alike, filled to capacity, we were told that only frontline and essential workers were allowed to move through our barren streets.
The U.S Department of Homeland Security offered guidance to states that defined essential workers as “Those who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations. Critical infrastructure is a large, umbrella term encompassing sectors from energy to defense to agriculture.” Individually, states drilled down on their definitions to better clarify who was included in this designation. Mixing the guidelines between the state and federal level, a number of “essential” sectors were identified that included energy, critical trades, child care, agriculture and food production, transportation, nonprofits and social service agencies, critical retail (i.e. grocery stores, hardware stores, mechanics), and water and wastewater.
Embedded in the sectors were Americans working in food processing plants, like employees at the Kellogg’s corporation. As “essential” workers, hundreds of Kellogg’s employees worked long hours and non-stop days to keep the business going and cereal on grocery store shelves. They were so good at their jobs, last year, Kellogg’s global operating profit was roughly 1.76 billion U.S. dollars. The CEO. of Kellogg Company has an annual salary of $12 million dollars a year. While, front line workers make well above minimum wage, they are concerned about their benefit packet, use of FMLA, and the company’s two-tier compensation system, to name a few concerns. Workers hired after 2015 are paid lower wages and benefits than workers hired on before that year. This difference has resulted in veteran employees waging a strike after being unable to reach an agreement with Kellogg that will safeguard their wages will not be harmed by tiered wage structure. On Oct. 5, Kellogg workers from four plants, totaling about 1,400 employees walked off the job.
In an effort to stop the strike, Kellogg Company threatened and subsequently, began to bring in permanent replacement workers. The worker’s union have said they were also told that nearly 250 jobs would be moved to a Kellogg plant in Mexico. While the company has denied this allegation, this narrative sounds all too common. Sadly, the issues facing “essential” workers is not limited to contractual disagreements or corporate disputes. We have seen American workers who got us through one of the most difficult periods in our nation’s history now become targets for abuse, mistreatment or treated with indifference. Whether health care laborers, election volunteers, or educators, a large swath of American workers are unduly being attacked by other Americans. Yet, they provide critical and often time life-saving or life-altering services. If we don’t take care of them, more workers will step away from these critical positions.