Originally Published in USA Today
Madison McVan, Ignacio Calderon and Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting - April 8, 2021
One year after COVID-19 infiltrated the meatpacking industry and sparked nationwide plant closures, meat-shortage fears and an executive order to keep production lines going, frontline workers continue to face risk.
Since last April, more than 50,000 cases have been tied to the meatpacking industry, and at least 248 workers have died, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The industry is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because the same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocumented workers who often live and work together because few other jobs are available.
Coronavirus case counts related to meatpacking have fallen since last year amid an industrywide effort to protect workers, and the more recent national vaccine rollout. But many facilities still harbor the disease. More than 200 cases were been reported in North Carolina in the past couple of months alone, according to state data. And at least one worker died as recently as March.
The Biden administration has promised tougher standards than those implemented under former President Donald Trump, but they haven't yet been implemented. Accountability, meanwhile, is lacking.
“As the pandemic continues, America’s essential food workers continue to face daily COVID risks on the frontlines in meatpacking and food processing plants across the country,” said Marc Perone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, in a press release. The UFCW represents many meatpacking workers.
The union has worked to expand vaccine access to help “prevent the deadly outbreaks we saw last year and keep our food supply secure as this crisis continues,” he said.
Minorities have largely shouldered the burden. About 90% of infected meatpacking plant workers were people of color, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These are the same groups struggling to get vaccinated. Minorities and people who speak limited English – a population that staffs meatpacking plants – were less likely to have received vaccines in the first three months of 2021, according to a CDC study released in late March.
Workers who for months have pinned their hopes on vaccines and a new administration still face a dangerous job.
President Joe Biden gave the Occupational Health and Safety Administration a mid-March deadline to decide whether it should implement an “emergency temporary standard” to combat coronavirus in the workplace, including meatpacking plants. This is after OSHA took a hands-off approach to oversight of safety standards during the Trump administration.
But the agency has blown through the deadline with no word of its decision.
“OSHA has been working diligently to consider what standards may be necessary,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told USA TODAY and the Midwest Center, “and is taking the time to get this right.”
COVID-19 cases still a reality
Meatpacking plants seemed to be a driver of COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic.
In April and early May, counties with large populations of meatpacking workers had about 10 times as many cases as other counties, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis. Another study pinned about 8% of all cases and about 4% of all deaths by mid-summer to the meatpacking industry.
By summertime, though, counties with and without large meatpacking worker populations began to report similar numbers, according to the USDA.
As of late, far fewer cases have been reported in meatpacking plants than at the peak of the outbreak. Companies including Tyson, Smithfield and JBS have all said they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on worker protections since last year. Many installed plastic sheeting between workers on the line, provided masks and face shields to employees and take temperatures daily. Some have offered more generous sick leave.
When federal guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus in meat and poultry plants came out in April 2020, “companies immediately worked those procedures, practices and methods into their processes,” Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, said in a previous interview.
But the virus is still a daily reality for many workers.
In North Carolina, where nearly 4,800 workers have tested positive since the pandemic began, more than 200 cases related to the meatpacking industry have been reported in the past couple of months, according to state data. At least one meatpacking worker died as recently as March.
The JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, was one of the first facilities to close, a year ago this month, bringing national attention to the plight of workers. When a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team visited the plant in April 2020, it found the company had provided workers with face coverings that didn’t fit agency guidelines. At least six workers died.
After nearly 300 workers tested positive, the state considered the outbreak resolved on Oct. 20. But about three weeks later, new cases prompted the state to declare a new outbreak at the plant.
More than 100 workers have tested positive so far, and Colorado considered the outbreak ongoing as of March 31.
Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman, said about 75% of workers at the Greeley plant had been vaccinated as of early April.
“Given the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S.,” he said, “we will maintain all of our in-plant preventive measures, including mandatory mask use, free surveillance testing and social distancing, while ensuring that all of our team members are given the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Many workers remain unvaccinated
Despite industry efforts, many meatpacking plant workers remain unvaccinated.
About a third of all Tyson plant workers have received the shot. In financial documents, Tyson said it paid pandemic bonuses to about 106,000 workers, and about 30,000 employees have been vaccinated, company spokesman Derek Burleson said.
As supplies become available, the company is offering free, on-site vaccinations, and employees will be compensated up to four hours if they get vaccinated outside work hours, he said.
“We take our responsibility to feed people seriously, and know that by taking care of our team members, our team members will take care of the U.S. food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to truckers, retailers and restaurants,” Burleson said. “We will continue to do our best to stay ahead of this challenging and ever-evolving pandemic.”
Smithfield did not say how many of its employees have been vaccinated, but spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said plants across the country were facilitating the shot’s distribution.
“This remains an active and ongoing effort at this time,” she said. “There is very low incidence of the novel coronavirus among our employees, and has been for a sustained period.”
Efforts to improve worker safety
Worker safety took a backseat during the Trump administration.
Last year, OSHA received 15% more complaints than 2019, but the agency conducted half as many inspections as in 2019, according to a February report from the labor department’s inspector general.
Many inspections were conducted virtually, a practice the inspector general said probably led to dangerous work environments.
“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of COVID-19,” the report said, “a reduction in onsite inspections could result in more worksite accidents, injuries, deaths, or employee illnesses.”
Deaths tied to meatpacking plants often went uninvestigated. By January, OSHA had not inspected 26 of the 65 plants where at least one worker had died, USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to rectify the situation.
OSHA announced March 12 that it would prioritize inspections at sites with the greatest risks for contracting the virus. A labor department spokesperson said this includes places where workers are spaced less than 6 feet apart, which includes meatpacking plants.
The agency said it would also reinspect some workplaces and prioritize on-site inspections unless those inspections could not be done safely.
In addition to the 65 plants that have had deaths, nearly 500 plants have had outbreaks, according to Midwest Center tracking. Since it announced the announcement of the emphasis program, OSHA has opened up two follow-up inspections, a spokesperson said.
One is an onsite inspection of an American Foods Group plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that had 366 COVID-19 cases, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. And the other is a Tyson Chicken plant in Noel, Missouri, that had 371 cases, according to the Springfield News-Leader.
“Our goal is to fully investigate every complaint we receive,” the department spokesperson said. “Our updated enforcement approach better ensures that we are doing that.”
Caught in the middle of all this are the workers, who have continued clocking into a dangerous job made even more so by the pandemic.
Alfredo, who's employed at an Arkansas Tyson plant and asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his livelihood, has seen firsthand the scarring of the pandemic. On top of the fast-paced work, he said, many of his coworkers have dealt with loss.
“They look destroyed,” he said.