Until the coronavirus crisis, how many of us thought about or prayed for laborers in food-processing plants, farm workers in the fields, cashiers ringing up groceries, truckers hauling produce or the person delivering pizza to our door?
Much as health care providers — nurses, doctors, technicians and others — have become our heroes during this crisis, so too are the laborers who make it possible for the “farm-to-fork” supply chain to continue. However, their inevitable and frequent contact with co-workers or the public put them at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus than those of us who have the privilege of working from home. We owe them our thoughts and prayers, gratitude and advocacy. These workers are essential, not expendable.
More than 180 workers at Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction have tested positive for the coronavirus, (USA Today, April 17). Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds acknowledged during her April 14 press conference that 86 of the new coronavirus cases that day alone were attributable to the outbreak at the Columbus Junction plant, which has been shuttered since April 6. How many of them have become seriously ill? How many have spread the disease to their loved ones or the people they car pool with to the plant?
Father Troy Richmond, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Columbus Junction and Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine, said in an April 15 text message that he had been busy that day calling parishioners in Columbus Junction. “I have made calls to around half a dozen families. I’ve only heard of one parishioner in the hospital. Unfortunately, I called the hospital where he was reportedly at and could not get through to him,” Father Richmond said. “One of our parishioners lost their brother-in-law who died of complications from COVID. Over the phone, I am offering words of consolation and encouragement. I am also praying with those who are ill and offering them a blessing.”
Father Guillermo Trevino Jr., who serves as parochial vicar for St. Patrick Parish-Iowa City, St. Joseph Parish-West Liberty and St. Bernadette Parish-West Branch, said he has four parishioners living in West Liberty and one living in Iowa City who have contracted coronavirus. He senses a great deal of anxiety and confusion about the disease and about working conditions among the people he ministers to. “People are scared to talk, even to me,” he said. No worker should be afraid to speak up about conditions that could harm them, and ultimately, all of us.
In his homily during the Divine Mercy Sunday Mass broadcast on Vatican News, Pope Francis said that “Selfish indifference is worse than the pandemic.” It is “spread by the thought that life is better if it is better for me.”
So let us begin with prayer. Remember daily all workers who make possible the food we eat, the water we drink, the utilities that power our homes and computers, the care provided to ourselves or loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes. Pray also for an end to the coronavirus pandemic and the suffering resulting from it.
Join advocates who are insisting on front-line protection for these front-line workers. A coalition of organizations — including American Friends Service Committee of Iowa, Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy, Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa, League of United Latin American Citizens, and Center for Worker Justice – urge Gov. Reynolds to take action to protect the health and safety of Iowa’s workers. Read about specific recommendation on the front page of this week’s Catholic Messenger and the full petition at afsc.org.
Contact Gov. Reynolds at governor.iowa.gov or call her office at (515) 281-5211 to request her to work with industry leaders to implement the petition’s protocols. Contact Tyson Foods at tysonfoods.com to support and implement the protocols at its plants.
Check out the University of Iowa Labor Center’s online resource of basic fact sheets on workers’ rights, available in English and Spanish, at laborcenter.uiowa.edu/resources-workers. Share the resource.
We cannot allow our essential workers to become expendable. The recovery from the coronavirus crisis “needs to embrace everyone,” the pope said in his homily. Otherwise, “there will be no future for anyone.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor