USA TODAY US Edition

USA’s meatpackin­g plants ideal virus breeding ground

Risky conditions have long plagued industry

- Sky Chadde, Kyle Bagenstose, Veronica Martinez Jacobo and Rachel Axon

Maria cut chicken thighs shoulder to shoulder with co-workers who coughed and ran fevers.

The 33-year-old single mother from Mexico worked on a fast-paced line in one of America’s most dangerous industries. Meatpackin­g plants have long faced criticism for sacrificin­g worker safety in the name of efficiency and cheap meat. Injuries are common. Severed fingers. Chemical exposure. Back sprains.

But Maria, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of employment concerns, feared something worse in mid-April at the Mountaire Farms poultry facility in Siler City, North Carolina.

As the novel coronaviru­s invaded meatpackin­g plants across the nation,

infecting dozens – then hundreds, then thousands – of workers, Maria said she feared for her life. Every time a colleague coughed, she said, she wondered if COVID-19 had found its way to Mountaire.

She worried about getting sick and dying, leaving her kids without a mother. She said plant supervisor­s wouldn’t talk about it. So she kept working.

By late April, the company confirmed at least 11 employees had tested positive for the virus. One of them was a coworker, Maria said, who called her upset that she unwittingl­y passed the virus to her father and he died.

The meatpackin­g industry has evolved into a marvel of modern efficiency, producing 105 billion pounds a year of poultry, pork, beef and lamb destined for dinner tables across America and the world. That’s nearly double what it produced three decades ago.

But its evolution came at a cost. The same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for diseases like the coronaviru­s: a cramped workplace, a culture of underrepor­ting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocument­ed workers who share transporta­tion and close living quarters.

“This pandemic is preying on decades of the fundamenta­l arrangemen­t of how we produce our food,” said Joshua Specht, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who studies the meat industry.

The meatpackin­g industry now faces perhaps its greatest test of worker safety as the novel coronaviru­s sweeps through its slaughterh­ouses and processing plants. As of May 20, officials have publicly linked at least 15,300 COVID-19 infections to 192 meatpackin­g plants, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigat­ive Reporting. At least 63 workers have died.

In April, USA TODAY found that 1 in 3 of the nation’s 405 largest meatpackin­g plants operated in a county with a high rate of COVID-19 infections. This week, the data shows that trend has expanded to more than half of those plants.

Companies including Tyson, Smithfield and JBS have implemente­d measures meant to reduce exposure, with many installing plastic sheeting between workers on the line, providing masks and face shields to employees and taking temperatur­es daily. Some have offered more generous sick leave.

“It’s probably safer in these plants than it is in the communitie­s,” said Shane Miller, senior vice president and general manager of beef enterprise for Tyson Fresh Meats in an interview with the Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Dozens of plants, including those owned by JBS and Tyson, have closed for days or weeks to slow or stop the spread of the virus. But some say the measures are too little, too late in an industry where worker safety has always been at risk.

Rantoul Foods’ pork plant outside Champaign, Illinois, took some of the same precaution­s as Tyson, Smithfield and JBS and still succumbed to a coronaviru­s outbreak.

Prompted by complaints from plant workers, county health inspectors toured the Rantoul plant in late April and found employees standing shoulder to shoulder with no barriers. They crowded at sinks, which often lacked hot water. Many didn’t wear masks.

The plant, which at the time knew of just one COVID-19 case among its employees, responded by hiring one person per shift to ensure workers properly wore masks. It also adjusted people on the line to social-distance, set up break rooms outside and staggered break times, according to an email a Rantoul executive sent to the health department. It was not enough.

Since the inspection, at least 87 Rantoul workers have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s nearly a quarter of the cases in Champaign County as of Wednesday, according to the state’s health department.

With an outbreak in progress, the plant then reduced line speeds to half capacity, according to a company statement. And Rantoul is “currently exploring the use of barriers between line employees to be in place before we ramp production speeds back up to previous levels.”

Even with those measures, it’s impossible for workers to stay far enough apart, said Julie Pryde, Champaign County’s health administra­tor.

Carpooling workers and crowded living conditions factored into the virus’s spread, Pryde said. But so did the company’s labor practices: Without paid sick leave, workers who brought in little money continued showing up, she said.

“Someone brought it in,” she said. “With no infection control measures in place, it just took off.”

A history of poor conditions

The warning signs were there for decades.

Worker advocates and government watchdogs have long cited endemic problems that thwart workplace safety. Among them: Workers are forced to slaughter and process animals at breakneck speeds. They get infrequent bathroom breaks. They crowd tight spaces. They are discourage­d from taking sick time. They lack protective gear.

Despite these red flags, the industry has continued to operate with little safety oversight.

Federal authoritie­s say the Occupation­al Safety and Health Administra­tion is in charge of monitoring worker safety at meatpackin­g plants, but the agency has had a limited role.

Despite publicized coronaviru­s outbreaks in at least 192 plants, OSHA has inspected four for COVID-19 safety violations, an agency spokespers­on said. It has received 48 complaints related to the coronaviru­s in meatpackin­g plants, the spokespers­on said.

Even now, meatpackin­g companies are working with the federal government to stay open. At least 46 plants have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the Midwest Center for Investigat­ive Reporting. Some shut their doors for a day of deep cleaning. Others halted operations for weeks.

The closures precipitat­ed a drop in production, sparking fears of national meat shortages. On April 28, President Donald Trump declared meat processing plants “critical infrastruc­ture” and directed the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e to work with companies to keep them open.

The move met swift backlash from unions and labor advocates.

“Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protection­s is wrong and dangerous,” tweeted Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Specht predicted in April that the industry would choose production over worker safety. “I suspected workers were going to be sacrificed to keep people eating their meat,” he said, “and that’s exactly how it played out.”

Essential, ‘also expendable’

Like meatpacker­s across the country, Maria in Siler City said she faced a choice: Risk her life for a job that pays the bills or quit to protect her children.

Catherine Bassett, spokeswoma­n for the Mountaire Farm plant where Maria worked, said that the company installed physical barriers between workers “by early April” and that masks were mandatory “before the CDC required it.”

But Maria quit on April 26, the day she said she learned of Mountaire’s COVID-19 infections.

“For two weeks, I didn’t hold my daughter,” she said. “She would follow me and I felt very bad, but I told my two other kids to take care of her, play with her and keep her busy. I didn’t know if I had the virus.”

Even though she’s low on money, she said she won’t return to the line. “We may be essential, but we’re also expendable. If I get infected and I don’t go to work, the factory is not going to stop.”

Meatpacker­s haven’t always been expendable, low-wage employees, said Roger Horowitz, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the industry’s history.

In 1950, the average meatpackin­g worker earned about $34,400 a year in today’s dollars, and providing paid sick leave was the industry norm, according to a Department of Labor study. Today, the average worker earns $29,600 with no paid sick leave.

By the 1950s, the industry appeared to have moved beyond the horrors described in Upton Sinclair’s classic “The Jungle.” The 1906 novel shocked Americans with its depiction of how meatpackin­g plants exploited low-paid immigrants by exposing them to harsh conditions at barely livable wages.

But companies soon began moving plants to rural areas nearer to feedlots and farms and with less union control. At the same time, meat got cheaper. Beef prices dropped about 30 cents a pound from 1970, adjusted for inflation, according to USDA data. Pork prices fell about 65 cents a pound. Since 1980, chicken prices decreased about 45 cents a pound.

Companies benefited from technologi­cal advancemen­ts to build larger, more specialize­d plants to profit on economies of scale. To staff them, companies sought laborers who were willing to work for cheap and live in rural areas, according to a USDA study.

The industry returned to its reliance on immigrant labor, Horowitz said. More than a quarter of all meat and poultry workers were foreign-born noncitizen­s in 2015, according to a Government Accountabi­lity Office report.

Those who are undocument­ed can’t buy health coverage or legally drive. Many live in multigener­ational households, meaning the crowded conditions at work continue when they return home, according to a report this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Amplifying the problem, experts said, is that meatpacker­s feel pressured to work even when sick, a problem the CDC cited in its report this month on outbreaks in meatpackin­g plants.

Before quitting, Maria said, she’d swallow “a bunch of pills and try to do the job because there was no other option.”

To keep their jobs, workers know they have to keep showing up.

“You can’t be the squeaky wheel in the assembly line,” said Carrie HenningSmi­th of the Rural Health Research Center in Minnesota. “It doesn’t leave you with much power and control.”

Workers and employers alike in the meatpackin­g industry may underrepor­t injuries and illnesses, according to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountabi­lity Office report. For the worker, it’s from fear of job loss, the report said. For the employer, it’s from fear of the potential costs associated with those injuries and illnesses.

The coronaviru­s has infiltrate­d plants with little room for social distancing. The lines in meatpackin­g plants are crowded because carcass cutting can’t be automated with machines. It requires humans to break down an animal into meat for the dinner table, precisely cutting carcasses of various sizes into thighs, breasts, loins and steaks.

Amid the pandemic, meatpackin­g companies are installing plastic barriers between production line workers and requiring employees to wear masks.

But that wasn’t enough at a Tyson plant in Rock Island County, Illinois, where health officials on April 23 found the partitions did not prevent contaminat­ed air from “circulatin­g within a worker’s breathing zone.”

Inspectors recommende­d that Tyson extend the barriers, and the company says it did.

Inspectors also recommende­d installing a system that filters air through ultraviole­t light to kill the virus. That system was installed this past weekend in some high-traffic areas such as the locker room, said Ashley LaCroix, a Tyson Foods spokeswoma­n.

Tough choices for workers

Even with the plant modificati­ons, too many meatpacker­s know someone who has fallen ill from coronaviru­s or someone who has died from it. That they, too, will be infected seems less like an “if ” and more like a “when.”

Plant workers who once feared they would lose their jobs if they took a day off now fear going to work at all. Many have stopped showing up.

Tyson plants in Arkansas increased the speeds of their production lines because fewer workers are showing up, said Magaly Licolli, the founder of Vencemeros, an organizati­on that advocates for poultry plant employees.

One worker she spoke with said his supervisor­s told him the line had to go faster because America faced a crisis: meat shortages.

“We are aware of no instance where line speed were increased due to higher absenteeis­m in our facilities in Arkansas,” said Tyson’s LaCroix. “The safety of our team members comes first and have slowed down our line speed in several locations based on availabili­ty of team members and to allow for proper social distancing.”

As fewer workers show up, Licolli said, “workers are often going from one department to the other.” And that can spread the coronaviru­s.

One worker at a Tyson plant in Rogers, Arkansas, said managers moved him onto a line with a man who’d tested positive.

“I told the human resource assistant I wasn’t comfortabl­e and I didn’t feel safe in that line,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his livelihood.

He wanted to go home but was told he’d lose a point, which could lead to his firing, he said. In mid-April, he took a week off, forgoing his $450 check.

Despite many missing workers, production has remained the same, he said. Managers find workers around the plant and set them to cutting, he said.

The company provides masks and checks temperatur­es, but he still doesn’t feel safe. People congregate at entrances when they clock in and scramble to find coats that people from the previous shift wore, he said.

“They don’t value us at all,” he said.

 ?? TYSON FOODS ?? Tyson Foods has installed plastic barriers between worker stations at its meat and poultry plants to protect against transmissi­on of the novel coronaviru­s. But some say the safety measures are too little, too late.
TYSON FOODS Tyson Foods has installed plastic barriers between worker stations at its meat and poultry plants to protect against transmissi­on of the novel coronaviru­s. But some say the safety measures are too little, too late.
 ??  ??
 ?? PAM DEMPSEY/MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGAT­IVE REPORTING ?? Medical teams prepare to test workers for COVID-19 at Rantoul Foods’ plant outside Champaign, Ill., on May 8. As of May 20, at least 15,300 infections were publicly linked to 192 meatpackin­g plants, and at least 63 workers died.
PAM DEMPSEY/MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGAT­IVE REPORTING Medical teams prepare to test workers for COVID-19 at Rantoul Foods’ plant outside Champaign, Ill., on May 8. As of May 20, at least 15,300 infections were publicly linked to 192 meatpackin­g plants, and at least 63 workers died.
 ?? SOURCE USDA- Johns Hopkins University; WHO; CDC; USA TODAY analysis CARLIE PROCELL/USA TODAY ?? Meatpackin­g and COVID-19
The map shows large meatpackin­g plants in U.S. counties with a COVID-19 infection rate equal to or greater than 269 per 100,000 residents — a higher rate than 75% of U.S. counties:
SOURCE USDA- Johns Hopkins University; WHO; CDC; USA TODAY analysis CARLIE PROCELL/USA TODAY Meatpackin­g and COVID-19 The map shows large meatpackin­g plants in U.S. counties with a COVID-19 infection rate equal to or greater than 269 per 100,000 residents — a higher rate than 75% of U.S. counties:

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