Immigrant Meatpackers Feel Pressure to Keep Working Despite Health Concerns

Amid concerns of the spread of Covid-19, a shopper wears a mask as she walks through the meat products at a grocery store in Dallas last Wednesday. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

(CN) — Guadalupe Paez felt sick for several days while he was working at a Wisconsin meatpacking plant but he says his company ignored his health concerns. He went to the emergency room on April 12, and on Tuesday he was finally reunited with his family after a long battle with Covid-19.

“I’m also angry for how I was treated. They did not want to believe that I was sick. They just told me ‘you just have a cold,’” Paez said, speaking on a phone call with reporters Tuesday.

For 15 years, Paez worked in the JBS Packerland plant in Green Bay that employs 1,200 and processes meat that feeds 3.2 million Americans a day. Last week, JBS Packerland shut down. The company wanted to help flatten the curve in Brown County, according to its press release, and it said it put in place safety precautions such as taking the temperature of employees and performing daily deep cleanings of the facility.

Food-processing plants have joined nursing homes, homeless shelters, prison and jails as Covid-19 hotspots as the outbreak moves across the nation, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found the virus had struck about 115 meat-processing plants.

The industry warned shutdowns of plants could lead to meat shortages. Last week, President Donald Trump declared meat processors critical infrastructure and urged they continue operations. 

In a call with reporters Tuesday, activists said immigrant workers — who make up a significant number of meatpackers — fear going to work but face pressure to show up even if they feel ill and ignore safety concerns.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Voces de la Frontera, translated Paez’s remarks. Before contracting the virus, Paez said JBS Packerland did not properly implement safety measures.

“I spoke with my father, and he told me that we did have to let people know he had been positive with the virus because the company was not letting other workers know at the plant who was infected,” said Paez’s daughter Dora Flores, who also works as a meatpacker. “We made that decision and then spoke to all of the people that we knew so they could take the proper precaution.”

The plant reopened Tuesday but attendance was low — Flores said many people are not showing up for work.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile in Tennessee, meatpacking workers are canaries in a coal mine, remarked Stephanie Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. 

“We clearly cannot just rely on businesses to implement the voluntary guidelines from the federal government that are necessary to keep workers, their families and our whole communities safe … You cannot flatten the curve without improving working conditions,” Teatro said.

Speaking with meatpacking workers in Tennessee, Teatro said many are terrified to go to work. If a co-worker does not show up, does it mean they are sick with Covid-19? Or perhaps they are simply too nervous to show up for work, Teatro said.

Teatro called meatpacking one of the riskiest jobs in the nation — especially so for immigrant workers. In April 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a meatpacking plant in Morristown, one of several workplace raids conducted by the Trump administration.

Teatro said the raid at Morristown uncovered several safety shortcomings, but immigrant workers are unwilling to sound the alarm if employers threaten deportation. Many immigrant workers also do not qualify for unemployment insurance.

The discussion about meatpacking comes after Tyson Foods recently warned of meat shortages caused by Covid-19.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote CEO John Tyson on April 26 about the effect of closing meat-processing plants.

A few days later, in its report for the second quarter of 2020, Tyson said it expected the demand for meat to increase. “Demand for food and protein may shift amongst sales channels and experience short-term disruptions,” it announced.

Tyson Foods did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Tuesday, a group of 11 attorney’s generals across the West and Midwest signed a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking him to investigate the meatpacking industry for antitrust concerns.

About 80% of beef processing in the U.S. is concentrated into four companies, the attorneys general wrote.

“With such high concentration and the threat of increasing consolidation, we have concerns that beef processors are well positioned to coordinate their behavior and create a bottleneck in the cattle industry — to the detriment of ranchers and consumers alike,” the three-page letter states.

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