By Dairyn Ortiz and Yecika Ramirez
Essential. This is a word that many have heard of late in the face of one of America’s biggest and gravest challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic. Our healthcare heroes have worked tirelessly in the battle against Covid-19 on the frontlines at hospitals, nursing homes and community clinics.
These workers have saved many lives and keep communities safe. They truly have earned access to vaccines for their health, safety and that of their patients and families.
We, and our co-workers, are also on the frontlines. We may not be visible, but every day, we help to feed Pennsylvanians. We make sure that our grocery stores are stocked. We process and package the food that sits on the dining room table. We work hard each day to ensure that the food supply chain remains alive and well in our state and nation.
We are both members of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1776. And we are among the 20,000 + grocery store and pharmacy workers, and the 10,000 food processing workers that our Local represents across the state. We have seen many of our co-workers fall ill or, in some instances, die from Covid-19.
Their memories are not lost, and we keep their families in our prayers. Still, despite the risks, our fellow members continue to come to work every day to ensure that food is being produced for our communities.
But we need help. On behalf of all of our co-workers, we are writing to publicly urge Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Health Secretary Alison Beam to take appropriate measures to make sure that food processing and packinghouse workers are prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine.
We have been very successful in working with employers across our entire Union to enhance safety measures and protocols at our worksites, including our own. We have worked hard, as have the vast majority of employers, to secure Personal Protective Equipment for workers and to institute important safety protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
At many worksites, it was necessary to make significant changes to production areas to help prevent the spread of this deadly virus to allow for proper social distancing.
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Our union was very pleased when Wolf rightly classified all of these workers as essential. The governor was right to classify grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing/packinghouse as lifesaving businesses. But these businesses cannot remain open without the very workers, like ourselves, that keep them operating.
We know from our own experiences that our fellow workers are taking an enormous risk every day. A new study by the University of Pennsylvania confirms what we already know about our work; that essential workers have a 55 percent higher chance of contracting COVID-19 than members of the general public. The study also found that our family members have a 17 percent higher chance of contracting the virus.
Now, because of the work of so many scientists and researchers, we can see a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Our nation was key to developing and purchasing millions of COVID-19 vaccines for distribution. Yet, still, we are waiting for this important resource to protect essential workers like ourselves.
We take pride in nourishing America and benefiting our communities. We are proud to hold good-paying jobs that benefit all Pennsylvanians and our local economies. But we are also painfully aware of the fact that COVID-19 is still a threat.
This virus continues to wreak havoc in our communities and among our co-workers and their families.
For the sake of ourselves, our families and our communities, we need to have access to COVID-19 vaccines now.
Dairyn Ortiz works at JBS Souderton in Montgomery County, and Yecika Ramirez works at Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazleton, Pa., in Luzerne County.