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Trump is keeping meatpacking plants open — but employees are scared to show up for work

Workers say they aren’t getting enough protection as the coronavirus rips through the plants.

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is the site of one of the country’s largest known coronavirus clusters.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday to keep America’s meat and poultry plants open, but employees are afraid to go back to work absent additional efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the facilities, which have been a source of major outbreaks.

More than 3,000 meat processing workers across the country have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, leading to additional spread in their communities, and more than 15 have died. Dozens of facilities have been forced to close temporarily or indefinitely.

Executives at America’s largest meat and poultry processing companies have warned of disastrous consequences for consumers should these facilities stay closed: Tyson Foods chair John Tyson said on Sunday that the “food supply chain is breaking.” Livestock prices have plunged because farmers have nowhere to send their animals for slaughter, while the price of consumer-ready meat has spiked.

While supply chain experts don’t anticipate a nationwide shortage of meat in light of the recent closures, they say there could be spot shortages at local grocery stores of certain types or cuts of meat.

But reopening the plants could come at great cost to their workers, who assert that their companies are doing too little to protect them from the virus. They say companies are failing to enforce social distancing on the production line and only recently beginning to offer additional protective equipment, if they do so at all.

Many employees also say they don’t have paid sick leave, health benefits, or substantial savings, offering them little assurance should they get infected and incentivizing them to work while sick.

“Workers are scared to go to work, but they face an inexcusable choice of going to work and exposing themselves to this pandemic or not going to work and losing their income,” Hunter Ogletree, a co-executive director of the Western North Carolina Workers Center, which is advocating for workers in local poultry plants, said in a press call on Wednesday.

Trump’s executive order instructs the Department of Agriculture to ensure that meat and poultry plants can continue operating uninterrupted as much as possible while abiding by guidance for Covid-19 preparedness issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The executive order leaves room for the agency to provide personal protective equipment to workers or issue additional regulations concerning worker safety — but it doesn’t explicitly provide any additional worker protections.

“This administration needs to step up and issue a federal emergency safety standard to protect all workers, rather than protect the profits of corporate cronies,” Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the President’s action sends a signal to meatpacking companies that workers’ health and ultimately public health doesn’t matter.”

How meatpacking plants have placed workers at risk

The coronavirus has ripped through meatpacking plants across the country. Earlier this month, more than 640 workers tested positive at a processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, operated by Smithfield Foods, one of the United States’ largest pork producers. Last week, Tyson shut down its biggest pork processing facility in Waterloo, Iowa, after more than 180 workers tested positive. Another 52 cases cropped up at a Butterball plant in Duplin County, North Carolina, as of Tuesday.

The workers in these plants are often low-income — one Smithfield employee reported making $17.70 an hour, though workers have been offered a $500 bonus if they don’t miss any shifts in April. Nearly half of them are immigrants, according to the left-leaning think tank New American Economy, and many of those immigrants aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or government stimulus money through one of the coronavirus relief bills recently passed.

Their work is physically taxing even in the best of times, as they lift and slice through heavy cuts of meat. Now, it’s also potentially life-threatening: A 64-year-old Smithfield worker was among the reported industry deaths.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus through meat processing plants is particularly concerning given that facilities are highly sanitized and contained even under normal circumstances due to federal requirements for pathogen control and food safety. Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said there is complete disinfection of the facilities every night after the last shift. Workers have to wear hard hats, safety goggles, frocks, and boots.

Now they’re also wearing masks and face shields — at least when the plants can obtain them — and they have been practicing social distancing where possible in cafeterias and places where the workers put on their protective equipment. Tyson Foods said it has also started taking employees’ temperatures either by hand or through infrared scanners. But on the processing floor, they’re standing shoulder to shoulder.

Employees have protested the lack of safe working conditions. Dozens of workers at a Perdue Farms facility in Kathleen, Georgia, staged a walkout in late March.

An anonymous employee at a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri, also filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that it had not provided enough protective equipment to its employees and that they were discouraged from taking sick leave. The company has denied the allegations, but a federal judge ordered it to abide by OSHA safety guidelines earlier this week.

“[M]anagers never blatantly asked me to risk my life just by showing up — until this pandemic,” the employee wrote in an April 24 op-ed in the Washington Post. “Now just coming to work puts us at risk of exposure to a virus that’s killing thousands of people every single day.”

Current and former workers at a Case Farms poultry processing plant in Morganton, North Carolina, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation, said in a press call on Wednesday that their employer still hasn’t enforced adequate social distancing.

One worker who had quit her job in early April over the lack of protection said the plant had previously refused to provide face masks or gloves. It only started providing face masks last week and plastic face shields that cover workers’ eyes on Tuesday. Still, workers remain only one foot apart in the production area, and in the cafeteria, five people can sit at a single table with a plastic shield between them.

Another worker said she had to stop working two weeks ago because she got sick and had to go to the hospital.

“They did not want to pay me for those two weeks even though I was sick, and now they want me to come to work without protecting us since we don’t know who is carrying the disease,” she said.

Case Farms said in a statement on Thursday, however, that the safety of their employees is their top priority, and that they remain in discussions with local county health directors to ensure they’re taking the necessary precautions.

“We are taking the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously and have several measures in place — all of which have been reviewed by directors of local health departments,” the company said. “We are committed to continue producing food for our nation’s food supply, while taking additional safety measures to protect our employees, our company and our customers.”

How the Trump administration could protect meatpacking workers

Working conditions in meatpacking plants have drawn scrutiny from members of Congress, including Rep. Joaquín Castro, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The CHC consequently wrote a letter to the Trump administration on Wednesday requesting that the conditions be investigated.

“Numerous companies across the meatpacking industry have not taken the necessary precautions they need to protect workers,” the caucus wrote. “While some companies were early actors in providing personal protective equipment, the callous inaction of others has reportedly led to multiple deaths and thousands of sick workers, as well as the death of two inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.”

In the meantime, workers are demanding that Congress take legislative action to protect their health and well-being. Hundreds of workers’ rights groups have urged Congress to pass a bill that would require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the workplace.

Berkowitz said the administration should force meatpacking plants to adopt the latest CDC recommendations, which include altering the alignment of production lines so that workers can remain at least 6 feet apart. It should also issue new guidance on sanitation and protective gear, as well as how to enforce social distancing in break rooms and locker rooms.

“Without these necessary and common-sense protective measures, Covid-19 will continue to spread in these plants and the communities around them,” she said.

Ogletree said that workers are also pressing their employers to implement protective measures. They are requesting that poultry plants in their state provide at least two weeks of sick leave with full pay, distribute enhanced protective equipment, pay workers a “pandemic premium” of at least 1.5 times their normal hourly wage, and shield workers from retaliation should they voice concerns about their working conditions during the pandemic.

They are also seeking more transparency about the number of coronavirus cases that have been identified among plant employees.

“These poultry processing plants are being very secretive around the number of positive cases that are taking place in their plants,” Ogletree said. “We need to know how many and if there are positive cases in the plant because at the moment, it’s just rumors, and rumors create fear. It’s not conducive to the health and safety of all workers.”

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