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Sick Meatpacking Plant Workers With COVID-19 Ignored; Told ‘It’s Just a Cold’

GREEN BAY, Wisc.—Meatpacking plants have become one of the nation’s major hot spots for COVID-19 infections in small cities and rural areas. In the last month, hundreds of workers have tested positive for the virus at plants in Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. 

“The problem is so out of hand that you’re forced to choose between your job and your life.” –Christine Neumann-Ortiz, head of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee.

“This is a message to my coworkers that we have to raise our voices,” Guadalupe Paez, a worker at the JBS Packerland plant’s slaughterhouse in Green Bay, Wisc., said on a telephone press conference May 5. “I’m angry for how I was treated. They didn’t want to believe I was sick. They told me I just had a cold.”

Paez, who has worked in the plant for almost 15 years, was admitted to a hospital after an emergency-room visit Apr. 12, and wound up in critical condition, said his daughter, Dora Flores. He was one of more than 290 workers at JBS who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meatpacking has long been a hazardous job, as workers do rapid, repetitive tasks with sharp objects. Since the unsuccessful 1985-86 strike at a Hormel Foods plant in Minnesota, jobs are much more likely to be nonunion. More than half the workers in the industry now are immigrants, many undocumented.

There are “industry-wide injustices,” said Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz, a labor organizer in Sioux City, Iowa. “It’s across the board.”

“You cannot flatten the curve without improving working conditions,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition in Nashville.

But “the federal government has failed to provide protection to workers,” she said. President Donald Trump’s Apr. 28 executive order to “ensure America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible” said that those processors would “continue to follow the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” In other words, those measures are voluntary.

Companies “have been very secretive” about disclosing when workers are infected and how many are, said Murguia-Ortiz. 

As of Apr. 30, the United Food and Commercial Workers [UFCW] said it had confirmed that 20 workers had died of the virus in meatpacking and food processing, with at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food-processing workers infected or suspected to be. There were 203 confirmed cases at American Foods, the other meatpacking plant in Green Bay; 298 as of May 4 at a Tyson Foods plant in Goodlettsville, Tennessee; more than 370, all asymptomatic, at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri; 669 as of May 4 at the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, across the Missouri River from Sioux City; and more than 1,000 workers and their “close contacts” at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which closed in mid-April but is preparing to reopen.

The UFCW on Apr. 23 urged the White House to increase worker testing, give food workers priority access to protective equipment, halt waivers of federal limits on line speed, and mandate social distancing and isolating workers who are infected or show symptoms.

This week, a warehouse worker at an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island died after testing positive for coronavirus on April 11. Workers at the facility have been protesting unsafe conditions at the facility for months.

Other essential workers around the country forced to work during the COVID-19 pandemic — including those at Walmart and McDonald’s — have already held work stoppages and other actions protesting the lack of workplace safety measures.

OSHA should set safety standards, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, and if it doesn’t, state and local governments should, because healthy workers are part of a functioning supply chain. Many workers don’t have paid sick days and there are incentives for them not to take time off. At American Foods, Flores said, they get bonuses if they go a month without missing a day.

Workers speak out about unsafe conditions “at great risk of retaliation,” Hincapié added, whether it be being fired—undocumented immigrants are not eligible for unemployment benefits—or threatened with deportation. In April 2018, 97 people were arrested in an immigration raid at a meat-processing plant in the small East Tennessee town of Bean Station. That August, 680 people were seized in raids on seven chicken plants in Mississippi.

Federal aid should “include immigrant essential workers,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, head of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee.

There isn’t that much difference between union and nonunion plants, said Murguia-Ortiz. The Tyson plant in Dakota City is unionized; the Smithfield Foods plant 90 miles north isn’t. Contracts limit what workers can go on strike for, he said, and unions haven’t been able to address systemic issues in the industry.

In Green Bay, JBS is union. American Foods is not, but workers there got masks and six-foot distancing after they complained to OSHA, said Neumann-Ortiz—although the masks started falling apart not long afterwards.

She believes that the COVID-19 virus’s lethality has inspired workers to speak out and resist, as it surpasses fears about their jobs or their immigration status. 

“The problem is so out of hand that you’re forced to choose between your job and your life,” she said. “It’s a life-and-death struggle.”

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