These Workers Supply 60% of NYC’s Produce—Here’s Why They’re On Strike

Photo: Stocksy / Kristine Weilert
Early on in the pandemic, grocery stores were one of the only places we could go. And amid fear and uncertainty, produce suppliers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and other "essential workers" continued to go to work and do what we needed them to do. So, when the workers of Hunts Point Produce Market—which supplies 60 percent of New York City's produce—asked for a raise of $1 per hour and were countered with just 32 cents, they went on strike.

“We’re not asking for very much, and if they would have gave that, then all of this right here could have been prevented. Everybody would have been working, everybody would have been happy," Ismael Cancela, a warehouse worker told The City. “All the fruits and vegetables that everyone eats, everyone continued to eat ’cause we was out here.”

The strike at the Hunts Point Produce Market began on Sunday, January 17. Charles Machadio, the vice president of the union that the market employees belong to, Teamsters Local 202, told the New York Times that six workers have died and about 300 have gotten sick after contracting COVID-19. He went on to say that a $1 raise would be a way of saying "thank you guys for coming to work, you really are heroes."

This speaks to the larger national issue of grocery store workers and suppliers being undervalued and underpaid during the pandemic. They want access to protective equipment like masks and adequate hazard pay. Grocery store workers saw a bump in support in the form of hazard pay early on in the pandemic, but for many, that payment wasn't enough and has since stopped. Santos Trejo, a 31-year-old food service specialist at Central Market in Austin, Texas, said in April that the hazard pay she received wasn't as much as it should have been.

"When I actually did the math, it doesn’t even equal a quarter of my paycheck; it’s about one-eighth of my paycheck," says Trejo. "The hazard pay is $2 per hour for every hour you’re working, but I don’t think it’s enough to recognize how much more difficult and busy our jobs have become. So I’m grateful for it, but I don’t think it’s enough."

Additionally, much of the (minimal) support has gone to grocery store workers, leaving meatpackers, farmers, and produce suppliers, like those at Hunts Point, feeling forgotten.

"We’re not getting nothing—no type of compensation, not even no cleanliness, no extra pay,” a worker at a Perdue chicken plant told a Georgia CBS affiliate in March 2020. “We’re up here risking our life for chicken.”

However, support may be around the corner. President Joe Biden's "American Rescue Plan" for COVID-19 details support of back hazard pay, according to a fact sheet from the Biden-Harris administration.

"Essential workers—who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander—have risked their lives to stock shelves, harvest crops, and care for the sick during this crisis," says the Biden-Harris administration. "They have kept the country running even during the darkest days of the pandemic. A number of large employers, especially in the retail and grocery sectors, have seen bumper profitability in 2020 and yet done little or nothing at all to compensate their workers for the risks they took. The [president] believes these employers have a duty to do right by their frontline essential workers and acknowledge their sacrifices with generous back hazard pay for the risks they took across 2020 and up to today."

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