Poor Conditions at Meatpacking Plants Have Long Put Workers at Risk. The Pandemic Makes it Much Worse.
Plant closures due to coronavirus outbreaks—and deaths—among workers underscore existing problems.
April 29, 2020 update: President Trump issued an executive order to prevent shortages of pork, chicken, and other products. Unions fear it will endanger plant workers.
April 22, 2020 update: Tyson Foods, Inc. halted its largest pork plant, becoming the third major U.S. facility to shut.
Saul Longoria Sanchez had worked for more than 30 years at the JBS SA beef production plant in Greeley, Colorado. He was humble and friendly, a much-beloved, low-level supervisor and a dedicated family man. Last week, the 78-year-old immigrant from Mexico died—the first victim of a COVID-19 cluster at the processing facility, and one of many such outbreaks that are rapidly sweeping through the nation’s meat processing facilities.
“My dad was encouraging, he was loving, he was a hard-working man. Now he’s gone and I know they [JBS] do not care,” his daughter, Beatriz Rangel, told reporters at a recent press conference. She implored officials at the plant to do more to protect the workers. “It’s too late for my dad, but it’s not too late for the other employees.”
Rangel said JBS officials failed to immediately inform workers of COVID cases at the plant, ignored her calls when her father was diagnosed, and acted too slowly to implement protective measures. The family buried Sanchez on Wednesday, just as JBS shuttered the plant for two weeks and sent its 6,000 workers into self-quarantine. The company did not respond to a request for comments from Civil Eats.
The meat processing industry, where workers toil shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces, has been battered by the novel coronavirus in recent days. Multiple plants have closed after several thousand workers fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and a dozen have died—including three other workers at the JBS plant in Greeley, one at a Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, four at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia, two at another Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, one at another JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and one at the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As of Wednesday, the Smithfield plant had become the country’s top COVID hotspot, with more than 640 cases linked to the plant.
Labor advocates say the alarming rate of illness and death from the novel coronavirus has brought to light long-standing problems in the industry. The tough working conditions that have been employed in these plants for decades—including a disregard for workers, in some cases a lack of basic benefits and low wages, a push for faster line speeds that increase the dangers of the job, and no access to protective equipment—are now placing workers at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition that brings together 34 worker-based organizations in the food sector around the country.
“Exploitation of the food labor force is not something that has just [recently] come up”
“Exploitation of the food labor force is not something that has just [recently] come up,” Adely told Civil Eats. “In the midst of this crisis, people are finally realizing that food workers really exist. We want to make sure they understand the exploitation they’re seeing at this moment is possible because it’s a pre-existing condition.”
And while the meat companies—under intense pressure from labor unions, health departments, and government officials—have finally begun implementing protective measures at some plants, workers and organizers say the measures are too little, too late. Many workers still cannot practice social distancing on the job, have not been provided masks, and have no financial recourse if they fall ill.
Meat Industry Unprepared—or Unwilling—to Protect its Workers
Meat processing workers—like others in the food industry—have been designated “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security. Last week, as COVID-19 cases started surging at meat plants, Vice President Mike Pence told workers, “We need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.”
Despite their critical role in the nation’s food supply, meat processing giants—the small handful of billion-dollar companies that each employ tens of thousands of workers—have shown themselves woefully unprepared for the pandemic. Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 union, which represents workers at the Greeley plant where more than 100 workers have tested positive for COVID-19, says the company didn’t take sufficient steps to prevent the spread of the virus among the workers.
Cordova, who spoke at an online news conference on Wednesday, said JBS—one of Colorado’s largest employers—did not properly inform its workers (who speak about 30 different languages) about the virus or its presence at the plant and didn’t institute protective measures until pressured to do so once many workers fell ill. The union, she said, had to fight with JBS to offer any type of sick pay compensation.
“This outbreak could have been avoided if there were proper notices, if there was PPE in the plant,” Cordova said. “They should have had masks available… they should have had other types of measures like plexiglass between the workers.”
When the coronavirus first surfaced at the JBS Greeley plant in early April, workers grew afraid of going to work, said Beatriz Rangel. Her father kept going back despite his fears because, she said, “It is the Mexican culture. Work comes first. He was so grateful to have a job… he wasn’t going to fail.”
As workers started to fall ill and die, JBS implemented preventive measures, including providing masks, daily deep-cleaning, staggered shifts and breaks, plexiglass dividers in key areas, and temperature checks. It also relaxed attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick.
At Smithfield Foods, they added extra hand sanitizing stations, boosted personal protective equipment, and checked workers’ temperatures. But according to ¿Que Pasa Sioux Falls?, a local nonprofit group, no one was sanitizing common areas, worked still worked in close proximity to one other, and they were allowed to work even when sick.
Advocates also say that safety measures have not been adopted in a uniform way across all the processing plants. Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million people, sent a letter calling on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to immediately issue mandatory guidance for food processing facilities, as well as grocery stores and pharmacies.
Last week, the CDC updated its guidelines to allow essential workers to return to work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided workers remain asymptomatic, wear a face mask in the workplace for 14 days after the exposure, and have their temperature taken before they enter the plant. Labor leaders said the new guidelines fall short and could even place workers at more risk, given the fact that people who are asymptomatic can also spread the virus.
Advocates have also filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and pushed the agency to issue emergency guidelines for food workers. So far, OSHA has not responded.
Dangerous Jobs, Lack of Benefits, Faster Line Speeds Create Risk
To many in the labor movement, COVID-19’s rapid spread among the ranks of food processing workers was sadly predictable.
Meat processing jobs are considered some of the most dangerous in the nation. The workers who perform them—largely immigrants, refugees, and other people of color—tend to be invisible and vulnerable to abuse. And their working conditions have deteriorated over the last two decades as the companies that run the facilities have consolidated and become increasingly profit-driven, said Adely with the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
“It’s a system whose goal is to create cheap food for profit, fast,” she said. “This model thrives on the exploitation of the labor force.”
Many meat processing workers live paycheck to paycheck and are penalized by the companies if they miss a shift. A large number are undocumented, and therefore can’t access unemployment and other federal benefits. And some have limited or no access to health care, and no sick leave.
Many companies are also now running their lines at faster speeds than ever, despite worker shortages, said Tony Corbo with Food & Water Watch. He sees the shift as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s plan to privatize meat inspections, which began before the pandemic, but has considerably sped up in recent months.
Over the past two weeks, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has approved new line speed waivers for a dozen poultry plants. (This is in addition to the more numerous waivers the administration has granted meat processors in the last three years.) The agency has allowed a Seaboard Foods pork plant and a Tyson beef plant to increase line speeds (the latter being the first for that industry).
Faster line speeds implemented at meat processing plants, plus new job duties, force workers to stand closer together.
These waivers allow the companies to churn out more product faster, but they also reduce the number of federal food safety inspectors at the plants and shift inspection duties to employees. The faster speeds and new duties, in turn, force workers to stand closer together, Corbo said.
“Everybody is trying to stay alive at this point, but the Trump administration is accelerating their deregulatory agenda just as workers are dealing with the pandemic,” Corbo said. “It winds up making their jobs that much harder and more dangerous.”
At chicken plants, the faster line speed is capped, while hog plants can run their lines as fast as possible. In recent weeks, Food & Water Watch has asked the USDA to pause implementation of the waiver program at hog facilities and reduce line speeds at other slaughter facilities. Earlier this year, the group filed a lawsuit alleging the waivers undermine pork-safety inspections in slaughter plants. And last year, workers at pork processing plants also filed a lawsuit alleging the faster line speeds and reduction in food safety inspectors put their lives in danger. Earlier this month, a court agreed the workers’ challenge can move forward.
Food Shortages May Loom
Over the past two months, government officials have repeatedly said that food is in ample supply and shortages are unlikely. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue, speaking at the White House COVID briefing on Wednesday said: “I want to assure you the American food supply is strong, resilient, and safe.”
According to the document, secured by Yahoo News, there could be “commodity impacts if current PPE inventory is exhausted.” The document estimates that meat, poultry, seafood, and processed eggs would become scarce within a period of two to four weeks, while shortages of milk would occur within 24 hours and of fresh fruits and vegetables “within several days.” And non-perishables such as dry goods and processed foods could become scarce “as soon as four weeks” after face masks and gloves run out across the food supply chain.
A similar warning was echoed on Sunday by Smithfield Foods as the company announced it was closing the Sioux Falls processing plant indefinitely. The company originally planned to close for three days, but reversed course under pressure from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. As of Wednesday, 644 people with connections to the plant had been infected, including 518 employees, representing nearly half of the state’s cases.
The closure, company officials warned, “is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” The plant, which employs 3,700 people, represents four to five percent of U.S. pork production.
The facility’s closure will also have repercussions for the 550 livestock farmers, who will now have fewer outlets to send their animals, Smithfield’s president and chief executive officer Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a statement. Already, some feedlot owners fear they may have difficulty selling their cattle. Economists estimate processing plant closures may result in falling cattle and market hog prices. And at least one chicken processing company has said it will be forced to cull—or kill up to two million chickens due to staff shortages.
But labor advocates said the most crucial vector in the food supply chain is the health of the thousands of workers who process those animals—and there should be a consistent approach to make sure their lives are protected.
“We need to have a national response,” said Domingo Garcia, national president of The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), during the press conference on Wednesday. “Unless these workers are included in the discussion, just like doctors and nurses in the healthcare system… we will have food shortages.” (LULAC has also released a report claiming that ‘Latino communities and all communities of color in the U.S. are being affected disproportionately by the spread of coronavirus.)
Advocates also pushed back on the idea that closing the processing plants will cause food shortages.
“Keeping slaughter plants closed to protect workers from COVID-19 threatens the meat industry’s profits, not our country’s food supply,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Action executive director in a statement on Thursday. Hauter said the U.S. exports 30 percent of its pork, which could be rerouted for domestic sales. Meanwhile, beef and pork exports were at record levels through February 2020 and U.S. broiler production was up nearly 8 percent in January and February of 2020. “One thing is for sure: corporate agriculture in this country overproduces and there is copious amounts of meat in cold storage across the board.”
Hauter added that the industry is stoking fears of food scarcity to push to reopen coronavirus infected plants, rather than absorbing the costs of rerouting and reworking the system.
COVID-19 Spurs New Worker Organizing Efforts
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, labor advocates say, it’s that more people are becoming aware of the conditions workers face. And most importantly, workers are motivated to organize for their rights by coordinating walkouts and putting pressure on management to demand better protections—especially in remote areas without union representation, said Adely with the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
“Workers in small towns are reaching out to us, saying there are no protections for us, what can we do?” Adely said. “Our focus isn’t just on mitigating the extent of their exploitation now, it’s also about creating the conditions that workers can use to organize for the long term.”
In Springdale, Arkansas, the “poultry capital of the world” and home to Tyson Foods, America’s biggest meat processor, for instance, a newly formed worker-based organization is fighting for improved conditions and better protections. Venceremos started a petition earlier this month asking Tyson and other area processors to provide paid sick leave as the coronavirus begins to spread to rural America.
“When the pandemic happened, it was like a red flag,” said Magaly Licolli, Venceremos’ co-founder. “It brought to light that our workers are not protected whatsoever.”
In fact, she added, workers often get punished for missing work. “Poultry workers are used to working even when they’re sick to [avoid] impacts on their paychecks,” she said. Tyson’s Springdale plant has over 2,500 workers, the majority of them Latinx and refugees from the Marshall Islands. The company has not reported any coronavirus cases in Springdale at this time, but Licolli said she has spoken to and heard of workers with COVID-like symptoms.
Tyson has told workers the company would relax its attendance policies during the pandemic and provide short-term disability pay to sick workers, Licolli said. But that only amounts to a fraction of full-time pay, she said, and some workers who were sent home with a fever have received nothing. The company also promised a one-time $500 bonus in July to workers who don’t miss a day between now and then.
“Workers don’t feel comfortable staying home if they present symptoms,” Licolli told Civil Eats.
Perhaps most alarming, Licolli said, is that workers continue to toil shoulder to shoulder on some of the lines. They take breaks together in a crowded breakroom. And they are not provided with masks, gloves, or sanitation stations. Some of those who are sent home one day due to COVID-like symptoms are allowed to work the next day, she added. Many of the workers already have respiratory problems, from the exposure to chlorine and peracetic acid, chemicals used for cleaning and disinfecting chicken, and such pre-existing conditions place them at higher risk.
“We want to make sure [workers] understand that if they don’t feel safe, they don’t have to go to work,” said Licolli. “And we want Tyson to understand that these conditions are inhumane, immoral, and they need to do a lot more.”
“This virus is not a game; we are risking our lives … but the company does not want to lose any money.”
Workers at the Smithfield pork processing facility in Milan, a town of less than 2,000 people in rural Missouri, face a similar situation. Until this week, the roughly 1,300 workers at the plant—most of them Latinx and African immigrants—didn’t receive any protective measures, said Axel Fuentes, executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA). While no positive cases have been confirmed at the plant, which is the area’s biggest employer, Fuentes reports that workers have seen colleagues come to works with COVID-like symptoms.
It was only after workers organized to write a letter with the help of RCWA, collected signatures, and presented them to management that the company began taking worker temperatures and installing plexiglass separators between workers, said Fuentes.
But Juan, a man who has worked for 11 years at the plant and declined to give his last name for fear of losing his job, said workers continued to be exposed. On some lines they still work literally rubbing shoulders, he said, and they have to crowd into a small hallway when clocking in. Workers have not received any masks either, he said.
“This virus is not a game; we are risking our lives,” said Juan. “But the company does not want to lose any money… they look at us just like another pig.”
Juan and Fuentes both said they were glad to see some of the new measures, including additional cafeteria space and two weeks of paid time off for those who present symptoms. But Fuentes said he suspects the improved conditions—and the public’s attention—will wane as soon as the virus is brought under control.
“It’s ironic these workers will likely be forgotten as soon as the pandemic is over,” he said.