Report: Working wages remain low in the food industry

June 20, 2012 | by Alicia Kelso
Report: Working wages remain low in the food industry

The Food Chain Workers Alliance released a report this month titled "The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain," examining the wages and working conditions for those employed in the food industry.

The restaurant industry, specifically, is the second largest private sector employer in the U.S., with employment expected to reach 12.9 million this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. The entire "food chain" – including production, processing, distribution and retail employees – consists of about 20 million people, or one-sixth of the workforce.

The 92-page Food Chain Workers' Alliance report provides an overview of the still-growing food industry. The numbers paint a dismal picture of working wages and conditions throughout the industry's five core segments – farmers, processing facility employees, distribution, grocery store employees and restaurant/foodservice employees.

And, although the Alliance specifically works to improve conditions for food industry workers, there are many opportunities for improvement as suggested by the nearly 700 interviewees and even more respondents who work in the industry.

Most jobs in the food system pay low wages with little access to health benefits and opportunities for advancement. Just 13.5 percent of survey respondents said they earned a livable wage.

More than 86 percent of workers surveyed earned low or poverty wage. Coincidentally, food system workers use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. (13.7 percent vs. 8.3 percent).

With a median wage of $9.65, 23 percent of respondents are considered subminimum; 37.6 percent are at poverty wage levels; 25.8 percent are low wage; and 13.5 percent are living wage.

Additionally, the report states, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been at $2.13 for the past 21 years, which has contributed to restaurant occupations being named by the U.S. Department of Labor as seven of the 10 lowest paid jobs in 2010.

Lack of mobility

Lower wages are compounded by the absence of training or promotional opportunities. According to the report, 32 percent of employees did not receive any training by their employer when their employment began.

Additionally, 74 percent received no ongoing training by an employer, and 75 percent never had an opportunity to apply for a better job. More than 81 percent have not received a promotion.

If food system workers are being passed up for these opportunities, it's not because they haven't put in enough hours. Forty percent of respondents reported they work more than 40 hours a week, while 11 percent work more than 60 hours a week.

Thirty percent reported not always having the ability to take a lunch break, and 40 percent said they didn't always receive a 10-minute break. Nearly 80 percent don't have paid sick days or don't know if they do, while nearly 60 percent don't have any health care coverage.

Some segments of the food chain have greater potential for career advancement to livable wage jobs, however, particularly in restaurants, grocery stores, and food and meat processing.


Of the 47 small to mid-size food system employers interviewed by the Food Chain Workers' Alliance, many said competition with larger corporations created challenges for business success. Most agreed that providing better wages, working conditions and advancement opportunities decreases turnover and increases productivity, however, many also admitted to not engaging in these practices.

The report outlines a few examples of corporate conglomeration in the food chain. Some respondents reported that market consolidation has created "unsustainable competition" for them, and has contributed to unsustainably low wages and benefits for food system workers.

"For example, a handful of companies control the majority of the meat packing industry. Tyson, Cargill, and JBS now process more than 70 percent of all beef. In pork, Smithfield Foods is the top packer, while Tyson, Swift (owned by JBS), and Cargill follow behind. These four packers controlled an estimated 66 percent of the market in 2007. Poultry is no different, with only a handful of companies dominating the processing of broilers (Pilgrim's Pride—now also owned by JBS, Tyson, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms) and turkeys (Butterball, Hormel Foods, Cargill, and Sara Lee)," the report said.

Rising consumer awareness

Within the past 10 years, consumer awareness has increased and support of small farms and locally grown food has jumped. Some chains, such as Chipotle and Culver's, have leveraged this trend as part of their mission and marketing strategies.

Low wages and lack of benefits experienced by workers have the potential to create public health concerns. Consider:

  • Only 21 percent of food workers surveyed reported having access to paid sick days. Sixty percent of food workers surveyed reported definitely not having access to paid sick days, and an additional 19 percent did not know if they had paid sick days. Workers' lack of knowledge about paid sick days prevents them from utilizing any paid sick days (for fear of employer retaliation). Consequently, the majority of food workers surveyed (53 percent) reported harvesting, processing, distributing, selling, cooking, and serving food while sick.
  • More than one in 10 food chain workers surveyed (11.7 percent) reported having to perform duties that put their own health and safety at risk. Food system workers reported that employers did not provide safe and healthy environments in which to work, and that many did not provide adequate resources for workers' personal hygiene and care. Almost one in 10 workers surveyed (9.6 percent) reported that their employers do not provide clean water to drink, and a similar number of workers (9.9 percent) reported that they do not have access to a clean toilet at work. For workers handling food, 4.4 percent reported not having access to a sink with soap and running water.

Suggestions for improvement

The Alliance provided numerous suggestions for policymakers on how to improve working conditions for the 20 million food system employees, such as:

  • Increase the minimum wage, including for tipped workers;
  • Reduce occupational segregation for food chain workers by working with employers to develop greater pathways for career mobility within the food system;
  • Improve food safety and the public's health by guaranteeing food system workers health benefits such as paid sick days and access to health care;
  • Increase penalties for food system employers who engage in exploitation, including wage theft, especially through regulatory levers such as liquor licenses.

Suggestions for employers included:

  • Permanently enhance job quality by increasing wages and benefits;
  • Adopt systematic and fair hiring and promotion practices;
  • Adopt and communicate company policies and procedures, including anti-discrimination and harassment policies, to protect the well being of all workers;
  • Adopt benefits, such as paid sick days, that would allow employees to care for themselves and their families.

The surveys and interviews were conducted by 11 member organizations of the Food Chain Workers Alliance – Brandworkers International, CATA/the Farmworkers Support Committee, Center for New Community, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, UFCW Local 1500, UFCW Local 770, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and UNITE HERE. The research was conducted throughout an 8-month period in 2011.

Funding support for the report was provided by The Ford Foundation; The Surdna Foundation; The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation; The Ben & Jerry's Foundation; The Norman Foundation; The Sociological Initiatives Foundation; The Abelard Foundation East; and The Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Read more about trends and statistics.


Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Financial Management, Food Safety, Hiring and Retention, Insurance / Risk Management, Operations Management, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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