COVID-19: Meatpacking Facilities

Some Statistics

As of September 8th, at least 42,805 meatpacking employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 201 meatpacking facility workers have died. And, as of May 25th, in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, coronavirus cases linked to meat plants account for 18, 20 and 29 percent of the states' total cases, respectively. In some meatpacking plants, such as a Seaboard Foods plant in Oklahoma and a Tyson Foods plant in North Carolina, a quarter of employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meatpacking Facilities as Coronavirus Incubators

Because meatpacking employees work shoulder-to-shoulder for prolonged periods of time, meatpacking facilities have been identified as major coronavirus hotspots. As WIRED reports:

A thousand people might work a single eight-hour shift, standing shoulder to shoulder as carcasses whiz by on hooks or conveyor belts. Often, workers get only a second or two to complete their task before the next hunk of meat arrives. The frenzied pace and grueling physical demands of breaking down so many dead animals can make people breathe hard and have difficulty keeping masks properly positioned on their faces.

In addition to being unable to social distance when working shoulder-to-shoulder in production lines, many meatpacking employees are unable to social distance when they carpool or ride packed buses to and from the meatpacking plants (often 60 miles one way). A lawsuit against JBS meatpacking facilities charges that "JBS made social distancing impossible, forcing workers to use “cramped and crowded” work areas, break areas, bathrooms and hallways." Many meatpacking workers also report that they are allowed only a few breaks on their shifts, which means they can rarely wash their hands while on the job. Moreover, the cold temperatures and the way air circulates in meatpacking facilities are thought to contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. According to UC Davis chemical engineer, Sima Asadi, "low temperatures allow the virus to stay viable outside the body for longer, increasing the survival of the virus in the air."

Insufficient Protection of Meatpacking Workers

What's more is that many meatpacking employees report that they weren't provided with adequate personal protective equipment, such as face masks or gloves. When a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri finally provided their employees with face-masks, whistle-blowers reported that employees were given one mask to wear for an entire week. Employees that are provided with masks report having a hard time keeping them in their proper position, due to profuse sweating. Other meatpacking workers report that, due to the loud noise in meatpacking facilities, they must frequently remove their masks so that they can communicate with their managers. This perhaps is one reason why a union that represents meatpacking employees at Farmer John plant (a division of Smithfield Foods) in Vernon, California reported that there is no evidence that the measures taken to control the coronavirus are working.

Meatpacking employees report that they were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they didn't come to work, even when they were sick. Many workers have not spoken out about the safety hazards to which they are subject because they fear retaliation. And many cannot protect themselves due to language barriers. For instance, at a South Dakota Smithfield meat plant, over 40 languages are spoken. Despite this, workers were given coronavirus informational packets only in English. This perhaps is one reason why, as of April 23rd, 783 workers tested positive for the coronavirus at this particular plant.

The Response of Meat Companies: Taking Advantage of their Economically Disadvantaged Employees

For these reasons (and more!), more than half of the current COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. are linked to meatpacking facilities. As of September 8th, at least 42,805 meatpacking employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 201 meatpacking facility workers have died. . One would think that the proper response to this would be to close meatpacking facilities. While some meatpacking companies have temporarily closed, most meatpacking facilities have remained open (and the ones that closed are now starting to reopen). Rather than close their facilities, a number of meatpacking companies responded to the outbreaks in meat facilities by offering financial "rewards" to employees who show up for work during the pandemic. For instance, in Greeley, Colorado, the JBS meatpacking plant has increased the hourly wage of employees by $4 in addition to offering a $600 "bonus"; a Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota offered a $500 “responsibility bonus” to employees who didn't miss their shifts in April; a Smithfield plant in Southeast Kentucky announced that employees will receive "hero pay"- a $5 hourly increase through July; and a Tyson Foods plant in Camilla, Georgia offered employees a $500 bonus if they continued to work through the pandemic.

Essentially, meatpacking companies tempt their employees to risk their own lives and the lives of their family members with an offer they can't refuse. After all, meatpacking employees are disproportionately low-income black, latino, and/or immigrants who are in "desperate need of income to pay their bills and feed their families." In fact, 87 percent of meatpacking employees who contracted the coronavirus are racial and ethnic minorities. This is why , on July 9th, a civil rights complaint was filed against Tyson Foods and JBS, alleging that JBS and Tyson Foods's failure to protect its employees disproportionately impacted Black and Latino employees and thus amounts to racial discrimination -- a violation of title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

29% of Food Processing Workers are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and thus cannot receive unemployment benefits or coronavirus government stimulus checks. For instance, over half of the employees at the Smithfield facility in Sioux Falls are immigrants. And because those who work at meatpacking facilities are economically disadvantaged, they often live in multi-generational and/or crowded households. Consequently, if they contract the coronavirus at work, they can quickly spread it to a sizable number of people. This, perhaps, is why coronavirus infection rates in counties within 15 miles of meatpacking plants are twice the national average.

As one author puts it, meatpacking workers are treated "as expendable as the things they’re slaughtering."

*Note: On April 28th, President Trump signed an executive order to use the Defense Production Act to mandate meat processing plants to stay open during the pandemic, and, on May 15th, House Republicans introduced a bill that would give meatpacking plants liability shield from potential coronavirus-based lawsuits.

State-by-State & Country-by-Country Reports of Coronavirus Outbreaks in Meat Packing Facilities

Below are articles about state-by-state and country-by-country coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking facilities. Note that this is not an exhaustive list of outbreaks in meatpacking facilities, as the public doesn't have complete access to this information. This is because:

  • There is no government tracking system regarding coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking facilities.

  • Many states haven't been or are no longer reporting the coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking facilities. For example, health officials in Nebraska and North Carolina aren't releasing information on COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants. And in Iowa, state officials don't publicize meat-processing plant outbreaks "unless they’re asked specifically about certain locations by reporters."

  • Moreover, many meatpacking facilities aren't disclosing the number of employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus "out of respect for the families" or due to "company policy" (see for instance what is happening in meatpacking facilities in Arizona and Ohio).

Arkansas

  • Coronavirus cases at Arkansas meat plants rise, draw protests (Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette: May 30th, 2020)

    • "More than 100 new cases came from poultry workers across the state in the past five days...The Hispanic or Latino populations comprise most of the active cases linked to the poultry industry..."

    • "This week the total number of cases from people employed by the poultry industry climbed to 415...That's up 37% from Monday when there were 301 cases...At least 69% of the cases are Hispanic or Latino, according to the report."

Arizona

Tolleson will test 200 city and JBS employees for COVID-19 as virus hits meatpacking industry hard (AZ Central: May 20, 2020)

  • Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar said city officials have been unable to get data on how many, if any, JBS employees there have tested positive.

  • JBS spokesperson said that the company wouldn't share the numbers "as a matter of company policy."

California


Delaware


Idaho



Illinois

Workers test positive for coronavirus at Illinois Tyson plant (Meat and Poultry: June 8th, 2020)

  • "Eight employees at a Tyson Foods Inc. steak-cutting facility in Chicago tested positive for the coronavirus...The new cases are in addition to 23 positive cases identified since April."

Iowa


Kansas

Kentucky


Minnesota

Nebraska

North Carolina

Oklahoma

Pennsylvania


South Dakota


Tennessee


Texas

Utah

Virginia

  • COVID-19 cases keep climbing at Virginia poultry plants; some members of Congress seek better protections (Virginia Mercury: May 5th, 2020)

    • More than 260 coronaviruse cases are associated with two facilities run by Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms in Accomack County.

    • As of May 5th, poultry plant-related cases represent about 60 percent of Accomack’s confirmed cases.


Wisconsin


Outbreaks Outside of the United States

Australia

Brazil

Canada

England

Germany

France

Holland

Ireland

Spain


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