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Exploring U.S. Food System Workers’ Intentions to Work While Ill during the Early COVID-19 Pandemic: A National Survey

January 16, 2023
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Caitlin A. Ceryes, Jacqueline Agnew, Andrea L. Wirtz, Daniel J. Barnett and Roni A. Neff


With “stay at home” orders in effect during early COVID-19, many United States (U.S.) food system workers attended in-person work to maintain national food supply chain operations. Anecdotally, many encountered barriers to staying home despite symptomatic COVID-19 illness. We conducted a national, cross-sectional, online survey between 31 July and 2 October 2020 among 2535 respondents. Using multivariable regression and free-text analyses, we investigated factors associated with workers’ intentions to attend work while ill (i.e., presenteeism intentions) during the early COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, 8.8% of respondents intended to attend work with COVID-19 disease symptoms. Almost half (41.1%) reported low or very low household food security. Workers reporting a higher workplace safety climate score were half as likely to report presenteeism intentions (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] 0.52, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.37, 0.75) relative to those reporting lower scores. Workers reporting low (aOR 2.06, 95% CI 1.35, 3.13) or very low (aOR 2.31, 95% CI 1.50, 3.13) household food security levels had twice the odds of reporting presenteeism intentions relative to those reporting high/marginal food security. Workplace culture and safety climate could enable employees to feel like they can take leave when sick during a pandemic, which is critical to maintaining individual and workplace health. We stress the need for strategies which address vulnerabilities and empower food workers to make health-protective decisions.