USA TODAY US Edition
USA’s meatpacking plants ideal virus breeding ground
Risky conditions have long plagued industry
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.