COVID-19 Is Taking A Brutal Toll On The People Who Process Our Meat

The number of infections and deaths tied to meat processing plants continues to grow each day.

The essential workers supplying housebound Americans with beef, pork and poultry during the coronavirus pandemic are getting sick and even dying as the virus spreads through plants and communities.

A Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has become the site of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with more than 600 confirmed cases in a workforce of 3,700. But the facility is not alone in having a dangerous number of infections:

  • At least four workers from a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, have died of COVID-19 and more than 100 have been infected. JBS has shuttered the plant for now. A union representing the workers has called it ”an intolerable situation for our members.”
  • On Wednesday, Colorado Public Radio reported the death of another Colorado meatpacking worker, from a Cargill plant in Fort Morgan. The plant has at least 15 confirmed cases.
  • More than 160 workers at a Cargill plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, have tested positive for the virus, out of a workforce of around 900.
  • Seventy miles away in Souderton, at least 17 workers at a JBS plant have tested positive as well, and one has died. Two additional Pennsylvania plants had to close.
  • Two employees at a Tyson Foods pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, died after an outbreak at the facility, which was shuttered on April 6. More than 140 workers there have tested positive.
  • Three workers from a Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia, had died as of last week.
  • At least 28 workers at a Tyson beef plant near Pasco, Washington, have tested positive for the virus.
  • Wayne Farms, one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S., has had COVID-19 cases at nearly half of its 11 processing facilities. The company declined to say how many workers in total had tested positive.
  • Smithfield said Wednesday that it would temporarily close two more plants, in Cudahy, Wisconsin, and Martin City, Missouri, after employees tested positive for COVID-19 at each facility.

The spread of the coronavirus has clearly made a hazardous job even more dangerous.

Laborers at poultry and meat processing plants tend to work right alongside one another, at a time when public health experts advise everyone to stay at least six feet apart. An employee at a poultry plant in Texas that has already recorded multiple COVID-19 cases recently told HuffPost that she and her colleagues were working shoulder to shoulder just like before the pandemic.

Employees in many plants are predominantly people of color or immigrants, doing hard labor for low pay. The average wage for a worker who cuts or trims meat or poultry was $13.36 per hour in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers report a much higher injury rate than the rest of the private sector, and advocates say the hazards are almost certainly worse than the numbers suggest.

Family members of JBS meatpacking plant employee Saul Sanchez, who died of COVID-19, grieve on April 15.
Family members of JBS meatpacking plant employee Saul Sanchez, who died of COVID-19, grieve on April 15.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers around the country, told HuffPost that one of his biggest concerns is members who get sick in rural areas where the health care system is not as robust. He said the union has been trying to work with employers to make the conditions safer during the pandemic.

“Can you move people six feet apart? Sure you could, but that’s going to slow things down,” he said. “The most proactive thing they can do is really check and make sure people, if they have any symptoms or they’re feeling sick, you send them home with pay.”

Noting how physically taxing the work is, he added, “The challenge is you can’t just replace these people.”

Oxfam America, Human Rights Watch and other worker groups sent a letter to poultry producers on Thursday saying that the rash of outbreaks calls for immediate protections inside plants. They demanded at least two weeks of paid leave for workers who are sick, quarantined, or caring for a family member, as well as “pandemic premium pay” of at least time-and-a-half for all hours worked.

““Poultry workers are essential workers, now and always, and they deserve these basic protection.”

- Worker groups to poultry producers

Wherever six feet of separation between workers is not possible, the groups called on the producers to install plastic physical barriers. They also said producers should slow down line speeds if necessary and add more workers to allow for adequate breaks.

“Poultry workers are essential workers, now and always, and they deserve these basic protections,” the groups wrote.

Many companies have given workers some kind of additional pay, but often far less than the double-time or time-and-a-half workers and advocates have asked for. According to the UFCW, Cargill instituted a 15% bonus for the pandemic.

Sanderson Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., has offered workers a $1-per-hour bonus, as HuffPost reported earlier this month. But workers are only eligible for that extra pay if they log perfect attendance for the week, according to an internal memo from the company.

Those who are out sick during the pandemic with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms are eligible for paid leave, but only if they have a doctor’s note documenting the illness. That may not be easy for an immigrant worker to obtain, especially during a pandemic when many doctors have moved to online consultations.

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