Meatpacking Industry Struggles to Find New Normal

This Smithfield Foods plant in Omaha, Nebraska, is in Douglas County where 60 people have died from Covid-19. (Courthouse News photo/Ted Wheeler)

(CN) — After being slow to implement safety precautions during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the meatpacking industry has seen a string of outbreaks in plants that have killed hundreds of workers. Now companies in the United States try to balance worker safety with keeping production high.

Complicating matters is a late April executive order from President Trump that mandated industrial meat production continue as an essential service— and it has. According to the Department of Agriculture, U.S. meat producers are now operating around 95% capacity when compared to 2019.

This despite the fact that infection rates among workers seem to be holding steady in the face of efforts to stop the spread. Labor advocates say there should be concern about this, as the status quo is troubling.

In testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last week, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, urged Congress to enact sweeping protections for meatpacking and grocery store workers.

“Millions of workers who lack access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are facing the devastating choice between risking their own health or risking the loss of a paycheck or job. Strong anti-retaliation protections must be in place in order to ensure that workers who feel ill, or who are suffering from Covid-19, can remain at home, in quarantine for the full period of time recommended by the CDC,” Perrone told lawmakers.

At the June 10 hearing, he estimated that 225 union members have died from the virus, with over 29,000 being either sick or exposed to someone who is sick. UFCW is the largest private sector union in the country and represents 1.3 million workers.

In an ag-centric state like Nebraska, where the virus has largely been contained outside of meatpacking communities, it is easy to see the impact meatpacking has had.

On its online dashboard, a heat map shows the most infections in Douglas, Hall and Dakota counties, which are home to multiple large meatpacking operations. Douglas County contains Omaha, along with much of the state’s population, but the most troubling numbers come from Hall and Dakota counties, where 72 of the state’s 216 deaths have occurred.

In comparison, Douglas County, which has seven times the population of the other two counties, has a lower death count, with a total of 60.

Following Trump’s order in April, Nebraska and other states stopped reporting separate Covid-19 infection data from plants and only report on a county-by-county basis. Nebraska also doesn’t break down the data by ethnicity, though, on May 29, a spokeswoman did note that Hispanic communities are bearing the brunt of infections here. Despite comprising only 11% of the population, Latinos suffered 48% of Covid-19 infections and 20% of deaths in Nebraska.

These numbers were no surprise to the organizers of Children of Smithfield. As the name suggests, the group was formed in April by young people whose parents work at a Smithfield pork processing plant in Crete, Nebraska. They knew each other from social media and started a Facebook group to talk about what they could do to address safety issues. Since then they have earned widespread attention for their efforts.

“We’ve been pretty vocal about how the response was too little, too late. Had the companies been more active, they could have mitigated the spread,” group admin Dulce Castaneda told Courthouse News in an interview.

A pop-up tent in Omaha tests workers for Covid-19 infections. (Courthouse News photo/Ted Wheeler)

Children of Smithfield advocate for paid sick leave and hazard pay for all workers; more personal protective equipment and sanitation in plants; and a program that would allow workers to make confidential reports of workplace hazards in order to limit retaliation against those who speak out. Castaneda also pointed out that the meatpacking industry has not implemented distancing programs on the lines and in locker rooms.

Smithfield Foods has been in the news in recent months for its failure to contain outbreaks. They were forced to temporarily close multiple plants and were sued by workers from a Missouri plant who asked a judge to mandate that the company enact safety measures.

“Every other industry and sector of our community took action earlier on,” Castaneda said. “When we knew campuses and dorms could be hotspots, students were told to go home, it’s not safe. When you think about the populations who are affected and who have been largely affected, it’s largely people of color and immigrants. It’s understandable that they’re essential workers, we just want people to understand that they deserve essential protections too.”

Even as plants implement new protections, Castaneda said there are communication barriers, saying that most workers get information by word of mouth instead of through their company or local health departments.

Denise Kracl, the county attorney of Colfax County, another of the dark red spots on Nebraska’s heat map, agreed that communication is a constant hurdle for officials who work with meatpacking communities, and it goes well beyond printing information in Spanish.

“We can always do a better job as government to communicate with everyone in our community. We try hard in Colfax County to understand cultures and have worked with Lutheran Family Services to communicate with Somali, Sudanese and Arabic-speaking groups. We want to serve everyone in our community, it’s just a constant challenge,” Kracl told Courthouse News.

At a recent food bank event in Schuyler, the county seat of Colfax County, the town’s United Methodist church received a grant to print education materials in several different languages. Locals worked with their state senator, Bruce Bostelman, and the office of Governor Pete Ricketts to get translations that can be hard to track down.

Interpreters who work at the local Cargill beef plant have also volunteered to help in the community.

“The folks at Cargill take great pride in keeping workers safe,” Kracl said. “Part of the problem is that people live together but work for different companies. We’re a very transient community. People in Schuyler work all over the region. The fact that we got hit late shows that we put in a lot of effort as a community to fight this.”

Cargill was also lauded by Perrone, the union president, for doing “what is right” by workers. The beef plant in Colfax County employs union workers.

Kracl has toured that facility and mentioned that households of meatpackers often contain several generations and family units. So even if one plant does everything right, many households in the community are still at risk because a sibling or nephew who a worker shares an apartment with might work in a different plant, in a different county where they were slower to take precautions.

According to what Kracl saw in the Schuyler plant, along with press releases from major producers like Cargill and Tyson Foods, these safety measures include mandating the wearing of masks, putting up plastic sheeting between work stations, implementing “rolling breaks” to keep workers from congregating and taking the temperature of everyone who enters the plant.

In the center of south Omaha’s once-famed meatpacking district, several white tents are visible outside plants where workers are tested for infections.

Although many state governments are not, Tyson Foods has been forthcoming with its infection numbers. In a recent release, Tyson reported that 591 workers, about a quarter of the total, at a pork plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, tested positive for Covid-19 infection. Of these, more than 75% showed no symptoms of infection.

Workers at a Tyson processing plant are geared with personal protective equipment while working. (Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods)

Meanwhile, a survey released late last week from the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed that safety precautions are being implemented inconsistently across the region.

The survey of 443 meatpacking workers, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, showed that 87% of workers saw mandatory temperature checks, 83% saw mandatory wearing of masks and 81% saw signage posted in different languages.

Meanwhile, only 40% saw increased distance between workers, 30% of plants slowed the line speed and 30% provided workers with additional time off. Tellingly, 72% of workers believe they are at high risk of contracting the novel Covid-19 virus.

Dr. Athena Ramos, an assistant professor at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities who conducted the survey, told Courthouse News that while the use of personal protective equipment is important, supplemental measures can go a long way toward making workers safe.

“I would say that workers are very worried about contracting Covid-19 at work, both for their own health and that of their families,” Ramos said. “Now is not the time to let down our guard. We must continue to be vigilant in our strategies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 both in the workplace and in the community.”

Another part of the puzzle is the nature of the job. While plastic barriers and masks are relatively simple to implement on the “cold side” of the operation—the part with conveyor belts and workers butchering meat that we see above—the “hot side” and its kill floor is more difficult to maneuver, said Kracl. Workers on the hot side are given masks and shields, but the bloody nature of the work can quickly render those precautions useless.

So the conflict between keeping production high and keeping workers safe remains a difficult one to resolve.

For instance, the Cargill plant in Schuyler is now offering an $8 per hour bonus for good attendance to counter high rates of absenteeism caused by both the fear of being infected and actual infections. But this also incentivizes workers to come into work when they should stay home. And, according to Castaneda of Children of Smithfield, companies often pay for only one week of sick time, if any time at all, which causes workers to return before the recommended quarantine duration is over.

“We want to keep food production secure, but we also want to keep citizens and residents safe,” said Kracl. These tensions are difficult to resolve when there is a lot of money and a presidential order to contend with.

On the government side of this, advocates say that worker safety is being sacrificed for corporate profits and that we should be wary of claims that the food supply is at imminent risk.

“The USDA itself is showing that industry claims of impending food shortages are hogwash,” Tony Corbo, of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, noted in a statement from May. “Meat exports are actually increasing and cold storage stockpiles of meat are growing. Meanwhile, the numbers of workers in deregulated plants are proving for us the importance of meat slaughter line speed caps and federal meat inspection. USDA should take a long, hard look in the mirror and reverse course immediately.”

Speaking with Courthouse News on the phone earlier this month, Corbo also took issue with the idea that the current status quo and flattening of infections should be seen as a positive development.

“The thing is, steady is not good enough. People are still getting sick. We’re still hearing about death in meatpacking plants. And there seems to be a clampdown on the amount of information coming out,” Corbo said.

He also noted that four USDA inspectors have died during the outbreak and that government workers often lack proper safety equipment.

Amid the pandemic, factors that have plagued the industry for decades have reached a fever-pitch. The hands-on nature of work that cannot be done by machines requires a large workforce who is willing to perform tough, often bloody jobs in conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans, often for relatively low pay.

Inconsistent regulation and mixed messages from Washington contribute to a confusing landscape, even before the pandemic. For these reasons, Corbo points out, industrial meat production has seen few changes since the days of Upton Sinclair.

Yet, as an industry in flex, a new normal could potentially lead to better conditions. The hope of those who spoke to CNS is that increased public scrutiny this year could lead to positive changes.

“This has shown a light on the ongoing issues on meatpacking and occupational safety,” Corbo said. “There needs to be a lot more done in terms of protecting these workers in the plants. Covid is just one part of it.”

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