Open Letter to U.S. Senators Ron Wyden & Jeff Merkley

This article is part of the series:

Author’s Note: Now, more than ever, we need to reach out to our political representatives in order to enact changes to our healthcare system, employment protections, and federally managed and financed programs and policies that have been designed to disadvantage Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color. The following letter is intended as an example and has been mailed to the appropriate parties.

Jena Thoma
Corvallis, Oregon 97330
June 23, 2020

Ron Wyden
221 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Jeff Merkley
313 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

“And then, Monday night was when I got sick. Monday night, I went to bed feeling OK. I woke up about 2:00 a.m. with this sharp pain on my body. It just feel like someone stabbed me. So you know, I went to the bathroom. And I said, OK, maybe if I take a shower, a cold shower, it’s going to be better. So I turned the water on. And it just — when the water hit my body, it feel like a bunch of rocks was getting thrown on my body […] And then, Thursday night, my body at this point is so exhausted. Even walking is, like, I’m pushing myself. I just feel like something heavy sit right on my chest. Now the fear really kicked in, because now I’m having problem breathing. I said, OK, it’s going to be better for me, I’m going to stay up. I don’t want to sleep. Because if I go to sleep, chances are going to be I’m not going to wake up. That’s when I left my room. I came to the living room and just sat there. Because I said, OK, if I stay in my room and I die, I don’t want my kids to find me dead in the room.”
-Achut Deng, The Daily Podcast

Dear Senators,

First, some background. Achut Deng is a shift lead at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of many food processing plants that experienced an outbreak of coronavirus. She and 80 other people in her department alone were diagnosed with COVID-19 after the CEO refused to close down the plant despite much of the country going into lockdown. At least 40 of those workers are, like Achut, part of the South Sudanese community that were initially attracted to the processing facility for the pay and benefits that the company offers. By the time Achut became ill, she was already on two weeks of mandatory paid leave due to exposure to the virus.

Many workers at similar facilities are not provided such benefits. Even Achut worried that her paid sick leave would not be enough to support her, her sons, and her family back in Africa. Sick leave covered minimum hours at minimum wage, whereas she typically relies on overtime, working 11 or 12 hour days, 6 days a week and making $18.75 as a shift lead. Like many, Achut had to weigh her options: report for work despite the risk to her health and safety, or not make ends meet.

Achut’s story is not an anomaly. The workforce of meat processing companies in the US is largely made up of immigrants and Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color. Low wages, few or nonexistent benefits, and some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country mean that these processing jobs are primarily filled by people from marginalized groups who have been excluded from other forms of higher paying work, or even simply from higher wages, by systemic and violent racism throughout their lives. These workers are dependent upon these low paying jobs and come to work despite being sick, making the meat processing industry a modern form of slavery, with workers treated with less concern than the animals they butcher.

Despite recent protests, many industries such as the meat processing industry have remained open despite thousands of workers becoming ill and dozens of reported deaths. Those few facilities that were temporarily closed lauded President Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act (DPA) which deemed meat processing “essential” work and ordered meat processing plants to stay open despite the pandemic. While some plants are now taking employee temperatures at the start of their shifts and are supplying surgical facemasks, workers are still required to work in cramped conditions that do not comply with mandated physical distancing measures. Furthermore, demands for more paid time off, hazard pay, disability, and unemployment benefits have gone unaddressed, and workers, often dependent upon what little income they make are forced to report to work despite their fears of contracting the virus.

Do not think that Oregon is removed from these issues; Pacific Seafood factories in Newport face some of the largest COVID outbreaks in the state, and it is well known that a majority of the employees at these facilities are of Latinx or West African descent. While you may believe that the rise of the recent racial justice movement is separate from the pandemic, you would be wrong. The majority of COVID cases in Oregon consist of precariously employed and underinsured minority food workers in plants where Pacific Seafood is just one example out of many. President Trump with the DPA and his support of various states’ re-opening demands wishes to use low-income workers and workers of color as guinea pigs to test the feasibility of a national lifting of COVID restrictions. Intentional or not, this is a covert genocide aimed predominantly at minoritized communities. Re-opening must occur, but only after the proper measures guaranteeing the safety and care of those at risk have been taken. Anything less is a premeditated massacre.

While Congress has passed a number of stimulus bills providing hospitals added funding and free coronavirus testing for the uninsured through Medicaid, the details surrounding treatment costs and coverage for uninsured patients cause concern. For example, if necessary care is not provided in a hospital, the coverage offered by the most recent CARES Act would not extend to follow-up care. Given the largely unknown nature of the disease and its after-effects, lack of continued coverage will make the act largely ineffective in the long run.

In fact, under the CARES Act hospitals will be paid about half as much as private insurers pay for the same diagnosis. As states begin to reopen their economies, future waves of outbreaks are inevitable and if hospitals once again become saturated with patients, it is not out of the question that hospitals may preferentially offer care to those with private insurance over the uninsured as a way to boost profits. This form of discrimination must be addressed before it becomes prevalent. Right now, those most at risk of contracting the virus are the most unable to receive treatment, facing disability and death.

So what can we do? I am writing to both of you specifically because you are the current senators of Oregon, where the Pacific Seafood facilities are located. You have the power to enact broad changes in federal programs that could provide direct relief for those suffering in your state and across the nation. Here is how to do so:

  • First and foremost, federally-sponsored universal healthcare will be necessary so that all members of society, even the unemployed, have access to free, basic healthcare. This is a growing problem considering that the unemployment rate has skyrocketed in the last few months as businesses close during the pandemic. Even though economies are now reopening, these jobs will not be restored for many months to years. Given the uncertainty, it is imperative that we have adequate safety nets in place so everyone in the country can receive treatment.
  • Second, all companies must provide guaranteed sick leave so that employees can seek out necessary treatment when the need arises. This would include greater protections for employees taking leave so that they do not fear retaliation or loss of employment for doing so. Similarly, federal financial support will need to be provided to these businesses that risk being hurt due to the absence of employees. These measures will become even more important as states reopen. Already struggling small businesses will need to grapple with the possibility of workers contracting and spreading the disease and will undoubtedly need additional government support so that their doors do not close permanently. Employees will also need to be certain that they can take time off and still be able to pay their bills.
  • Finally, now more than ever a federal universal basic income will be necessary so that even those that lose their jobs or businesses can get by. Workers like Achut should not have to depend on overtime hours in order to meet their financial obligations. Even if mandatory sick leave and protections are established, they will be ineffective if workers still choose to come in despite being sick and having paid sick leave. Even a sum of $1000-$2000 a month could provide enough relief that workers can take the time they need to recuperate and the jobless can still get by.

I know what you’re thinking. How can we afford all of this? One of the most popular arguments against universal health care is that it is expensive and that we are not able to find the money in order to provide such an amenity. However, universal health care works well in many other countries. Models for its successful implementation are numerous.

As for universal basic income, the fact that the US government was able to pass a bill providing $1,200 to every adult citizen proves that we have the capacity to provide necessary relief. However, just as the pandemic is not likely to end anytime soon, neither should the financial support. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of the people it represents, and if that safety comes in a monetary form it is no less imperative that it be provided than if it were military defense. In fact, drawing from our exorbitant military budget could help fund universal basic income, allowing this money to directly aid citizens who are not being protected by defense spending.

More than ever we need to ensure the health and safety of everyone, not just those who are fortunate enough to have access to private insurance or jobs that can be completed while sitting on the couch. Simply providing facemasks and temperature tests to employees is a “band-aid” solution. This does little to solve the systemic problems in our society that require minorities to bear the brunt of the hardship associated with mandatory re-openings. People will die if universal healthcare is not adopted. They will be forced to report to work because they cannot afford to live on paid sick leave if they are dependent on overtime. Without universal basic income they will become sick and without health protections this sickness will spread.

The measures necessary to cope with this new form of existence are unfamiliar and severe. COVID-19 has forced us to drastically alter our ways of life. So too must our policies on healthcare and federal financial support be adjusted to meet the demands placed on everyone, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am looking to you to propose and pass universal health care, sick leave, and basic income policies that will ensure that exploited workers such as Achut Deng can survive  ­̶ and even thrive during these desperate times.

I hope you will consider these arguments in your decisions on future legislation. Please feel free to contact me at (XXX) XXX-XXXX or at XXXXXXX@XXXXXXXXXX.XXX if you wish to discuss these issues further.

Jena Thoma

Jena Thoma is a graduate student studying Organic Agriculture at OSU after obtaining a bachelor’s in Neuroscience and French at UCLA. She has spent many months living and working in France where she was introduced to and benefited from universal healthcare. She has also seen the discrimination and racism present in the US food and agricultural systems during her time as a supervisor at a premier sugarbeet seed processing facility in Oregon.

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