Food Workers Are Dying at Meat Processing Plants Where Social Distancing Is ‘Almost Impossible’

"Every day we worry about this virus.”
April 24, 2020, 2:28pm
meatpacking food workers coronavirus
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

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More than 5,000 American food workers have been infected or exposed to coronavirus, and at least 13 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International union.

Members of the union, which represents 250,000 workers in the meat and food processing industries, said on a Thursday press call that conditions at meatpacking plants made it nearly impossible to practice social distancing, even as companies have taken short-term measures to try to keep workers safe.

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Margarita Heredia, a worker at a JBS pork plant in Iowa, described social distancing inside the plant as “almost impossible. There’s no room.”

Even at plants that have adopted “aggressive” social distancing and safety measures, such as a Cargill beef plant in Dallas, Texas, workers are anxious to come into work, worker and UFCW member Rhonda Trevino said.

“On a normal day we don’t have room for errors, it’s very hard work, and safety is our top priority,” Trevino, who has worked at the plant for more than 25 years, said. “These are not normal days. Every day we worry about this virus.”

The news of infected workers comes as at least eight major meat plants owned by Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, National Beef, and Hormel have shut down in recent weeks, according to a count from Bloomberg. This week, JBS shut down its Worthington, Minnesota facility after seven workers there tested positive for coronavirus.

The closures have taken at least a quarter of U.S. pork production offline indefinitely, although most shutdowns are lasting about two weeks, according to Bloomberg. If coronavirus forces more closures in key parts of the supply chain in the coming weeks and months, economists say that shortages of some meat products could begin as soon as May.

The CDC released a 15-page report on Thursday offering more than 100 recommendations for how Smithfield can improve conditions at its production plant in Sioux Falls, SD, which has nearly 800 workers who’ve tested positive for coronavirus. The plant closed on April 12, and a spokesperson said recently that “living circumstances in certain cultures” helped exacerbate the spread of the disease.

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On Thursday, however, the Rural Community Workers’ Alliance and an anonymous worker at Smithfield plant in Missouri filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the company wasn’t even allowing workers to pause their work to cough or sneeze. The suit said Smithfield was enacting “punitive measures to ensure its preferred line speed is maintained, including that missing even one piece of meat to clean one’s face could result in punitive employment action.”

The worker and the RCWA also allege that the company hasn’t given employees “any additional break time to wash their hands or to use hand sanitizer,” and even “encourages them to come into work sick.”

A Smithfield executive reportedly told Law.com that the allegations “are without factual or legal merit and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded.”

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Cover: A Tyson Fresh Meats plant employee leaves the plant, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Logansport, Ind. The plant will temporarily close its meatpacking plant in north-central Indiana after several employees tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)