More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the country and world at large are still facing more questions than answers. Even as case and fatality numbers fall and vaccinations rise, the full impact of COVID-19 on all facets of life will take years to truly understand.
Among the many questions arising in the wake of COVID-19 include, “How does one prevent something like this from happening again,” and “What could have been done better or differently?” In Minnesota, a recent executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz sought to begin answering those questions in regard to the state’s agricultural and food processing workers—an industry hit especially hard in Minnesota and elsewhere, resulting in high-profile outbreaks in, and closures of, meat processing facilities. His order, signed March 19, established the “Governor’s Committee on the Safety, Health, and Wellbeing of Agricultural and Food Processing Workers.”
“Agriculture and food processing are foundational to Minnesota’s economy, and yet, workers in these industries face immense challenges, particularly regarding workplace safety, employment protections, and access to safe housing, health care, and transportation,” Walz began his March 19 statement. “We all share responsibility for addressing these challenges, and I am grateful to the leaders from across the state who stepped up to serve on this committee.”
The executive order lays out several policy goals to understand where failures occurred over the last year and how to fix potential blind spots in the future. The committee’s objectives include:
- Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by coordinating resources and outreach for the 2021 growing, harvesting and processing season.
- Designing a proactive strategy to deploy public, private and nonprofit compliance resources to protect and promote the safety, health and well-being of agricultural and food processing workers—focusing on housing, transportation and workplaces.
- Developing a system for effective communication between state agencies, community organizations, advocacy groups, and agricultural and food processing employers and workers, including the workers’ families and communities.
- Supporting and assisting the Minnesota Department of Health, local public health departments and community organizations with the coordination of the COVID-19 response, including testing, vaccination, access to health care, and necessary assistance for the quarantine and isolation of workers and their families if they test positive or become ill.
- Providing government agencies, community organizations, advocacy groups, employer and worker organizations, employers and workers a forum to engage, analyze data and information, coordinate resources and plan for future agricultural growing, food production and processing seasons.
“Those working in agriculture and food processing are essential to keeping our state and nation’s food supply strong, but for too long, their voices have gone unheard,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “The safety, health, and wellbeing of workers is vital not only to the workers themselves, but also to their families and communities, and to Minnesota’s agricultural production and processing industries.”
The committee will be co-chaired by Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Hamse Warfa, deputy commissioner, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Its members also include representatives from statewide food and agriculture organizations, including the Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union chapters and many others.