COVID-19 Hot Spots Put Meatpacker Giants on the Front Burner

Learn more about NRDC’s response to COVID-19.

[This blog was updated May 8th, as follows.]

It’s been only two days since my original blog, but things are moving fast as COVID-19 spreads throughout the nation’s slaughterhouses, affecting their workers and USDA inspectors alike. Conditions are ripe in slaughterhouses for spreading infection. Hundreds or thousands of low-wage workers slog away elbow-to-elbow, under dangerous conditions; many of them are already at heightened risk for COVID-19 illness and death due to pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart or lung disease.   

 
Investigators at FERN, the Food and Environment Reporting Network, are keeping close track of the mounting human toll. The latest figures (as of 12 pm EST, May 7th) put the number of cases and deaths among slaughterhouse workers at more than double what I previously mentioned: nearly 12,000 (11,946)  confirmed sick workers, from 189 meatpacking and processed food plants, with 48 deaths and climbing 
 
In an all-too-familiar pattern, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Alex Azar, has blamed the workers, the victims, for their own illness. Most of slaughterhouse workers are immigrants and/or people of color. 
 
The unfolding tragedy is why NRDC, along with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and other partners, are urging support for HR 6559, the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, which has at least 70 cosponsors. H.R. 6559 would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to issue an enforceable worker safety standard (replacing the below-mentioned, but still-voluntary CDC guidance), in addition to other key worker protections and reporting requirements.  

Not only workers are suffering. As of May 5th, USDA administrators tell me there are 197 USDA inspectors out with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, although CBS News reports indicate dozens more inspectors are also quarantined due to known exposure alone. Three USDA inspectors have died. These inspectors are frontline workers the nation relies upon for food safety. Are they also to blame for their own illness? The union representing 6,500 federal food inspectors nationwide doesn’t think so; Paula Schelling, the acting president of AFGE Council 45, gives the USDA "an 'F' for protecting its own employees.”  [END UPDATE]

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A week or two ago, the nation seemed to grasp for the first time that meat and poultry slaughterhouses had joined New York City in the ranks of COVID-19 hot spots.

By last Friday, my colleague Val Baron was blogging about President Trump’s reaction; he had quickly signed an executive order he claimed would indemnify plant owners from bearing responsibility for workers’ health, although some experts doubt whether that is the case.

Across the country, many counties with slaughterhouses are now seeing rapidly climbing COVID-19 case numbers and deaths. I analyzed county-level case data, publicly available on the New York Times website, that are collected and updated each day. Today’s data show the #3 hot spot to be Dakota County, NE, which has only 20,000 residents. The county is dominated by a huge Tyson’s Fresh Meats beef slaughterhouse and its 4,300 workers. After weeks of mounting cases, the plant was finally closed for “deep cleaning” on May 1. Today's planned re-opening has been delayed. The local newspaper of record, citing a ‘knowledgeable' anonymous source’, reported at least 669 plant workers had become COVID-19 positive by April 30th, accounting for a whopping 71% of the county’s entire case load. The same article points out that most of the plant’s workers reside nearby in Iowa’s Woodbury County, where there are now 1,152 cases but lower case rates, given the county’s bigger population.

The fourth ranking hot spot is Nobles County, MN, home to one of the nation’s largest pork processing plants, owned by the Swift division of the huge Brazilian meat company, JBS. The Minnesota plant closed its doors on April 20th, affecting about 4% of the nation’s pork supply, and resulting in lay-offs for over 2,000 workers. On April 29th, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported that 239 of the 615 (39%) of the then-positive cases in Nobles County were among plant workers. Since then, MDH has not offered updates on slaughterhouse-connected COVID-19 cases by county. Today, its 1,011 confirmed cases give Nobles County the 2nd highest number in Minnesota, although it comprises less than 0.4% of the state’s population.

At number 8 on the list is Cass County, Indiana, home to one of Tyson Foods’ biggest pork processing plants, in the town of Logansport. With 2,200 workers, the plant had closed down for a single day for “deep cleaning and sanitation” after 20 workers had tested positive. The plant re-opened on April 21st, only to close again on April 25th when a spokesperson for the Cass County Health Department somewhat uncharacteristically revealed that 40% of the plant’s workforce, or 890 workers, had tested positive. 

The muckracking journalist, Upton Sinclair, wrote The Jungle in 1906 to draw attention to the Chicago meatpacking industry's terrible exploitation of immigrants, who were paid lowly wages to work under deplorable, very dangerous conditions. Tragically, Sinclair's description of the industry still rings true today, a hundred and fourteen years later; we can largely thank the pandemic for waking us up to that fact. “[W]e are treated like modern-day slaves”, said one Tyson plant worker in Georgia, recently, to a journalist. Modern-day slaughterhouse workers still are often immigrants -- as many as a quarter of them undocumented. When ICE raided Georgia chicken plants last year, arresting 680 such workers, many were replaced by poorer African Americans.

A disproportionate share of prisoners in the U.S., as with the slaughterhouse work force, are Black, Hispanic and other people of color. The nation's top two COVID-19 hot spots are rural counties with large prisons (in Tennessee and Arkansas, respectively). Prison outbreaks also account for very high case rates in Ohio's Marion County and Pickaway County, where 2,160 and 1579 prisoners and staff have now tested positive for COVID-19, respectively.

Many slaughterhouse workers, according to Araceli Calderon who works with them in Colorado, are caught in a fearsome Catch-22. A big portion of the slaughterhouse workforce is people who cannot work there legally. With last week's executive order, however, the plant owners are legally empowered -- in fact, mandated -- to keep their plants open without there being an enforceable worker safety standard in place that protects workers from COVID-19. So, legally, these same unprotected workers must show up at work, or risk losing their jobs. 

As Valerie Baron has written, there are certain policies the meat industry and the Trump administration could enact to better protect these workers The steps could include, for example:

  • Returning plants to safer line speeds, since some meat processors have actually sped them up to try and ensure continued production and profits despite COVID-19, and worker shortages. 
  • Asking the CDC to withdraw an especially fraught guidance it recently issued. That voluntary, interim guidance effectively allows meat processors and other companies during the pandemic to keep people at work even after they've been exposed to COVID-19, and without having taken sufficient steps to keep those workers safe. NRDC recently joined more than 500 other medical, public health, worker heath, women's health, labor, environmental and racial justice groups in signing onto a statement sent to the CDC that demands the same.
  • Directing OSHA, the federal agency with responsibility for worker health, to set an infectious disease standard for COVID-19 and enforce it in meatpacking and other plants. No such standard exists.Congress can and should mandate OSHA to create one without further delay. 

For well over century, the powerful meat industry has acted to maximize profits, typically at the expense of worker safety and health. In short, it's still a jungle out there. The biggest meat packers in alliance with the Trump administration have shown great determination in the face of the latest threat from COVID-19 to keep slaughterhouse production lines running at all costs, even as their own workers keep falling. 


 

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities
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