This article has previously been published here.
Nearly fourteen months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, infecting 33 million and leaving over 550,000 dead. Communities of color have largely shouldered the burden as workers from these communities were more represented in industries with high rates of exposure to COVID-19. For instance, Hispanic and Latinx individuals were twice as likely as their White counterparts to be exposed to COVID-19, three times as likely to be hospitalized, and 2.3 times as likely to die from the virus according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Few industries were more heavily hit than the meatpacking industry. As of May 21st, 2021, fourteen months since the pandemic began, about 90,027 meatpacking workers have been infected at 1,442 meatpacking and food processing facilities, with 396 recorded deaths. This information was collected by the Food and Environment Report Network (FERN). Large employers such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and JBS have been singled out for their especially hazardous workplace safety standards.
About 90% of infected meatpacking plant workers were people of color, according to the latest data from the CDC. It is these same workers that are struggling to get vaccinated, according to a study by the CDC who are still at risk. The new Biden administration has promised tougher standards than those implemented under former President Trump, but they haven’t yet been fully implemented. Congress has begun an investigation into meatpacking plant infections but it remains ongoing.
Accountability, meanwhile, is lacking and it is costing lives. In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor issued two citations totaling $29,000 to two meatpacking plants in South Dakota and Colorado which had a combined 1,500 COVID-19 cases and 12 worker deaths. Under the Trump administration, only eight citations were issued over COVID-19 related concerns, totaling a paltry $80,000. Such limited oversight leaves workers vulnerable to ongoing safety risks and labor violations.
While many things changed during the pandemic, one thing that never changed was our need for groceries, especially proteins like chicken, beef, and pork. Large corporations including Tyson and Smithfield took advantage of this to successfully lobby state and federal governments across the country from shutting them down during the nadir of the pandemic, even as thousands of workers were being infected by COVID.
Who packs the meat?
Data estimates from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) indicate that meatpacking across the United States is a predominantly male industry, with the mean age being around 40–41 years old. Of the 64% of meatpacking workers that identify as non-white, 38% are foreign-born immigrants. More than half of these workers come from Latin America, in particular Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
In an industry already notorious for its lack of strong workplace protections, retaliation, and low wages / benefits, immigrant workers are even vulnerable. As large numbers of these workers are undocumented, they are unable to access welfare programs nor stimulus funds that support working families and communities through times of economic distriess. The American meatpacking industry has historically relied on large numbers of immigrant workers, especially from Mexico, Guatemala, and other South American countries to fill the dangerous jobs in the industry. These workers, especially those who come to the United States as refugees and undocument immigrants, are most likely to be exploited by companies.
A Negligent Lack of Safety
Even before the pandemic, meatpacking was rated as one the most dangerous industries to work in, where rates of anxiety, fatigue, and physical injury were high. While the pandemic did not create the labor abuses endemic to meatpacking plants, it did help to magnify the issues to the public.
Workers like Alfredo Fernandez who worked for nearly 55 years at a JBS meatpacking facility in Colorado experienced wage theft and obstacles to receiving workers compensation when he was exposed to COVID-19. The JBS plant that Fernandez worked in experienced hundreds of COVID-19 cases, all the while the company worked to prolong the shutdown of the plant dispute calls from workers and labor leaders for urgent action. An even larger outbreak took place at a plant in North Carolina operated by Tyson where there were 570 confirmed cases. The worst hotspot was in Sioux Falls, SD, where 929 workers at a Smithfield pork processing plant were infected by COVID-19. Disconcertingly, these numbers do not reflect the personal contacts of these workers that may have been infected as well. Despite the dangers of the industry, workers are often hesitant to come forward due to a combination of employer intimidation / retaliation, a lack of information about worker rights, and fears that whistleblowing could trigger investigations by the Department of Homeland Security which would endanger immigrant workers. Combined with the lack of strong oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), meatpacking plants continue to have negligent levels of safety for their workers.
In response to these unsafe work conditions there has been a rise in activists stepping in to provide some aid for endangered factory workers. One particular activist, Maria del Rosario Palacios from Gainesville Georgia shared some thoughts on what it is like on the front lines at the height of the pandemic.
EA: To begin, can you tell me a bit about your background?
MdRP: I currently live in Gainesville, GA. I have lived there since I was 5. My parents moved here in 1994 to work in the poultry plants. They learned of those poultry plant opportunities from her uncle, he told them there was a lot of work available. My family moved here from L.A after the earthquakes. My parents were migrant farmers, they moved around quite a bit. My mom worked in poultry for about 20 years. I grew up knowing about the poultry plant from my mom who also worked many jobs. I grew up undocumented and hoped I would never have to work in a poultry plant because I heard stories from my mom about mistreatment.
After high school I began to work in a poultry plant. I wanted to go to college but my immigration status made it difficult. I worked in poultry because it made the most money, I made $9 an hour. I also took college classes while working.
Working at the poultry plant was an experience I’ll never forget. I gained a great understanding of the needs to improve workers rights, especially in poultry factories. I help where I can by translating or whatever else I can do. Throughout the years I have stayed connected because I have family that still works in the industry and others that I know. I work in nonprofit administration now.
EA: Can you tell me how the situation for the workers changed from before the Covid-19 pandemic to now?
MdRP: Many of the workplace issues existed long before covid. I think that is why this moment is so pivotal to advocate for. Oftentimes production lines are packed due to a high demand for poultry. Gainesville may be the poultry capital of the world. With such high demand there are many workers working together, in close proximity, to meet the high demand. A small number of factories have taken some measures, such as requiring some small distance between workers, but it is not enough. The factories have less workers right now because some are calling in sick or just don’t want to work in close quarters. But that doesn’t stop the demand. There have been efforts (see Congress) to speed up production lines. These measures are the opposite of measures needed to curve covid. It has been said that employers have started to take temperatures but apparently that did not last long. I talked to 10 workers at Pilgrims Pride, they said that the employer has recently stopped taking temperatures. Other poultry plant employers such as Marjack and Gold Creek are not providing PPE. They are not doing enough to prevent cross contamination. Having PPE is/was crucial before Covid-19, now it seems they are doing less which is extremely dangerous.
EA: How has the worker’s immigration status been a factor?
MdRP: My first thought is that there is no healthcare for undocumented factory workers. This is significant right now because they don’t have primary care physicians, this is important to have access to Covid-19 testing. Of course they have the option to go to testing drives and that’s good but it is not the same as having access to healthcare. I have gone to a testing drive event, got tested, and was told it takes around 10 days to get results. I am unsure if the health department is strained which is causing the test results delays. In my experience it took longer than that to get the test results. Additionally, there is no testing going on every day in Hall country, for some reason. Some of my family have had to drive to Forsyth county to get tested, they were told it would take 5–7 days to get results. The concern here is that it is the same public department though. I think there are many barriers for factory workers, especially undocumented workers. Getting tested at a clinic through healthcare gets faster results and often will produce out of work orders to help the employee recover. The issue is the employers demand fast results to know if the employee can work or not. Some employers have a point system, different infractions earn different points; getting 10 points results in termination. This causes worries for workers living paycheck to paycheck. Without access to healthcare they cannot provide fast results and do not have the luxury to stay home while waiting for results and rest. So it is unknown if they have the virus and may be unknowingly spreading it.
EA: What work have you and your team done in response to this?
MdRP: I initially tried to stay out of organizing and mainly do stuff behind the scenes. But when I started to see the barriers for recovery for these workers, seeing a friend and a friend’s father pass due to covid-19, I had to do something. I had folks reaching out to me to offer help to me and my family. I started a drive to gather and distribute disposable masks and gloves to workers to help fight contamination. I crowdsourced funds and received help from Serene in Atlanta who helped spread the word. We raised $800 worth of PPE from Sysco and got around 4000 masks and gloves. Once friends found out my family were affected we experienced a lot of aid. We received medical supplies, food runs, etc. I thought that if crowdsourcing is happening, it needs to go to others like her friend who’s dad passed away from the virus. My friend needed 10k to pay for funeral expenses so I started prioritizing emergency funds for situations like this.
I think employers need to step up and take better care of their workers. If I don’t see them do what they need to, I will continue to raise funds for emergency expenses and getting and handing out PPE. We are not raising a lot of funds right now but we want to give out mini grants of $1000 to $1500 so the recipients can tie over while they recover. I see workers going to get payday loans to survive which can take a long time to pay back, they often come with high interest rates, and they often end up owing a lot. We are trying to protect workers from being pressured by employers to not take sick time off work. I have been told by some that they have been told by employers they will lose their jobs if they are out for too long.
EA: Anything you would like to state/make known?
MdRP: The first-hand experiences Maria has are, sadly, not rare or specific to the poultry industry. Meat-packing and processing plants were designated essential by an executive order by President Trump on April, 28, 2020, designating them “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950. Meat packing plants and processing plants are a hotbed for contagions and 312 plants currently have confirmed covid-19 cases, as well as at least 39 farms and ranches. Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, who employ almost half a million workers, have closed some thirty plants since the issuance of the executive order due to the continued rate of spread and concentration of the virus. As plants reopen, all four of the industry giants have cited the safety of the workers in these plants as the top priority.
Where to next?
Fast forward to 2021 and the meatpacking industry workforce has been left devastated by COVID-19. Reflecting the industrial dangers of the industry, even without a pandemic, 6 workers were killed at a poultry plant in Gainesville, GA due to a liquid nitrogen leak. At least two were Mexican nationals. Though vaccines are becoming more available and there is a decrease in COVID-19 cases, there remain outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking facilities. Meatpacking workers and other frontline workers are still at risk due to working so close together, and dangerous conditions that have remained in place since before the pandemic. The CDC’s announcement on masks has created new levels of fear amongst workers in meatpacking facilities and other frontline industries.
With vaccines rolling out, the most vulnerable workers and communities must be prioritized. This means targeted outreach and education aimed at dispelling myths and falsehoods about the vaccine, and visiting places where community members convene (e.g. churches, clinics, parks). Language justice is essential given that many workers in meatpacking industries are not always comfortable with English as their first language.
Congress must safeguard the labor rights of frontline workers in the meatpacking industry, including whistleblowing, health and safety, and collective bargaining. To address fears of reporting, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must be decoupled from investigations of unsafe meatpacking facilities by the U.S. Department of Labor. Ending the Trump administration’s line speed waivers and bolstering OSHA at the Department of Labor are additional ways that meatpacking workers can be protected. Further, the Biden administration and Democrat-led congress can provide workers with peace of mind and strong protections by prioritizing the passage of immigration reform bills such as S.747 which would streamline the citizenship process for immigrant workers who were on the frontlines during the pandemic. If passed, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would pave the way for new levels of worker organizing, and create strong enforcement mechanisms to deter future labor violations.
When the pandemic began, it was meatpacking, food processing, farm workers, and employees throughout the food supply chain that kept food stocked in our supermarkets that then made it to our kitchens. It was through their sacrifice that the nation managed to persevere.
It is time they get the recognition and safeguards they deserve.