California Study Finds Food Workers at Higher Risk of Dying from COVID

Liz Carey

San Francisco, CA ( – It’s not just unruly customers that are making food service one of the more dangerous jobs during the pandemic; it’s dying from COVID-19, a study has found.

Across the country, restaurant and fast food workers have been the victims of violent attacks since April of last year. But, a study from the University of California – San Francisco has found that some food service workers are more likely to die of COVID-19 than any other worker in the U.S.

The study looked at excess mortality rates associated with COVID-19 amongst Californians between 18 and 65, by race and by occupation between March and October of 2020 – the height of the pandemic.

Mortality rates for working adults increased by 22 percent, with the highest increases being seen in food and agricultural workers at 39 percent. Other high increases were seen in transportation/logistics workers (28 percent), facilities workers (27 percent) and manufacturing workers (23 percent).

Even when broken down by race, those in the food industry had increases in the mortality rate.

“Latino Californians experienced a 36 percent increase in mortality, with a 59 percent increase among Latino food/agriculture workers,” the study said. “Black Californians experienced a 28% increase in mortality, with a 36% increase for Black retail workers. Asian Californians experienced an 18% increase, with a 40% increase among Asian healthcare workers. Excess mortality among White working-age Californians increased by 6%, with a 16% increase among White food/agriculture workers.”

Looking at occupations, the study found that line cooks had a 60 percent increase in mortality rates. Rounding out the top 10 occupations for the highest risk of dying from COVID-19 were packaging and filling machine operators; miscellaneous agricultural workers; bakers; construction laborers; production workers; sewing machine operators; shipping, receiving and traffic clerks; grounds maintenance workers; customers service representatives; and chefs and head cooks.

“Our analysis is among the first to identify non-healthcare in-person essential work, such as food and agriculture, as a predictor of pandemic-related mortality. Essential workers—especially those in the food/agriculture, transportation/logistics, facilities, and manufacturing sectors—face increased risks for pandemic-related mortality,” the study said. “Shutdown policies by definition do not protect essential workers and must be complemented with workplace modifications and prioritized vaccine distribution. If indeed these workers are essential, we must be swift and decisive in enacting measures that will treat their lives as such.”

In California, however, legislation was passed early on in the pandemic that made COVID-19 an occupational injury for first responders.

The legislation, SB 115, replaced an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom that protected all employees who were required to work outside of their homes between March 19 and July 5, 2020, including farmworkers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers and others.

Instead, SB 115 limited the employment presumption to first responders and healthcare workers, including “active firefighting members of specified fire departments or units; certain peace officers; fire and rescue services coordinators who work for the Office of Emergency Services; employees who provide direct patient care or custodial employees in contact with COVID-19 patients who work for designated health facilities; paramedics and emergency medical technicians; employees providing direct patient care for a home health agency; providers of in-home supportive services; and other employees of designated health facilities.”

The legislation also included a provision for employees whose employers had five or more employees test positive for COVID-19 during an outbreak at their place of employment.

Strikingly, while line cooks and bakers had a more than 50 percent increase in their mortality rate, nurses had a just 35 percent increase in mortality rate, while firefighters and police officers didn’t make it into the top 25 professions seeing an increase in mortality.

Workers say the increase in the number of deaths, added to attacks from customers, are the main reasons why the food service industry is having such a hard time finding people to work.

Cambryn Hunter, a server in Louisiana, told HuffPost she not only knows of chefs at restaurants she’s worked in who have passed away, but also ones who have lost their jobs due to long-term effects of COVID, like shortness of breath, or a loss of taste or smell.

“The reality here is that the service industry is dying because our workers are dying,” she told HuffPost. “They’re not all ‘staying home to collect unemployment.’ Some of them are no longer around to work.”

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