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A Petri Dish for Employee Exploitation and COVID-19 Cases

A Petri Dish for Employee Exploitation and COVID-19 Cases: Meatpacking Plants Threaten Immigrant Workers

The thousands of positive coronavirus cases among meatpacking employees reflect an industry that has historically thrived off of mistreating a vulnerable population.

With shelves empty of the traditionally easy to find toilet paper and aisles barren of baker’s yeast, grocery store aisles across the country were filled with palpably tense air, as stressed shoppers braced for the unknowns of stay-at-home orders and uncertainties within their lives. With an unprecedented increase in demand for large quantities of everyday items, manufacturers began to experience the effects of the consumers’ frenzy. “There is not a supply shortage, but it does take some time for the manufacturing process and our supply chain to catch up from the significant spike in demand,” stated the interim president of Giant Food, an American supermarket chain. While many producers quickly bounced back from the increased demand, the meatpacking industry has struggled to process its normal quantities due to the temporary closures of plants resulting from high numbers of positive coronavirus cases amongst plant employees, a predominantly immigrant population. The outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants not only threaten the meat supply chain, but more importantly place many immigrant employees at risk of contracting COVID-19 or facing severe financial repercussions. 

When the Smithfield Foods facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota closed in April due to positive novel coronavirus cases among employees, approximately 550 livestock farmers lacked a plant to process their livestock. As the Sioux Falls facility accounts for 4 to 5% of all pork produced in the US, its closure greatly reduced the supply of pork in grocery stores and restuarants. Soon after the South Falls facility, multiple other meatpacking plants closed as a result of the spread of COVID-19 among their employees. 

Workers in a Smithfield Foods facility- Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Although the various closed meatpacking plants are not physically close to one another, it isn’t shocking that multiple meatpacking facilities experienced large numbers of concentrated cases. Working elbow-to-elbow to utilize all the space in a factory, “some workers had as little as three feet of space at the cutting table.” These close quarters led to 28,303 confirmed coronavirus cases and 102 coronavirus-related deaths among meat-packers as of June, 26 2020. 

There is a long history of documented mistreatment and unfair working conditions among meat-packing employees. In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Sinclair sheds light on how poorly the employees are treated by highlighting the experiences of a recent immigrant to Chicago who began working as a “shoveler of guts” at a meatpacking factory. Addressing the back-breaking labor, low wages, lack of soap and water in bathrooms, and transmission of illnesses, Sinclair hoped this story would lead to reform of the treatment of employees in the meatpacking industry; however, public outrage focused more on explosive information regarding the lack of sanitary practices in meatpacking. This led to the passage of the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug Acts of 1906, which were major strides for improving the safety of consumers. Despite the major improvements in the quality of meat, the treatment of workers, specifically immigrants workers, did not improve.

The thousands of positive coronavirus cases among meatpacking employees reflect an industry that has historically thrived off of mistreating a vulnerable population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30% of meat and poultry packers are immigrants. This percentage does not account for the number of undocumented immigrants who also work in meatpacking plants. In addition to being exposed to potentially unsafe work environments and intense physical labor, immigrants already are at risk for worse health outcomes, often due to lack of access to adequate healthcare. Without access to COVID-19 testing, workers continue to go to work until their symptoms physically prevent them from doing so.

When the Center for Disease Control reported in April 2020 that positive coronavirus cases were emerging in meatpacking plants across 19 states, the industry responded by increasing preventative measures; however, the number of cases among employees has only continued to rise. This drastic increase in positive cases follows President Trump’s Executive Order on April 28, 2020, which invokes the Defense Production Act to label meat packing plants as “critical infrastructure” and thereby encourages meat- and poultry-packing plants to stay open amidst the pandemic. This order comes as an attempt to decrease the impact on the meat supply chain and prevent a shortage of meat across the country.

While the executive order only encourages meatpacking plants to stay open, many are offering large bonuses and raising hourly wages to incentivize employees to come to work. JBS USA, a leading producer of meat and poultry products in the United States, has begun to increase salaries by $4 per hour with a $600 bonus. While workers who remain home for health concerns do receive normal or slightly decreased salaries, the increase in wages from JBS USA and many other meat manufacturers provides an opportunity for increased financial security during the economic downturn. This has led many immigrant employees to continue working at the plants, posing a risk to themselves and others. 

In an interview, Achut Deng, a Sudanese immigrant who works at the aforementioned Smithfield Sioux Falls Plant, discussed how she supports her 4 sons and 5 family members who live in Africa with the income from her meatpacking job. After being exposed to a coworker who tested positive for coronavirus, Deng was sent home to quarantine for 2 weeks. “Overtime is, like, $500 extra. $500. That, for me, it covered a lot of things,” Deng explained, noting the financial impact of only being paid for 40 hours a week, which was much less than the overtime she normally worked. Deng recently tested positive for coronavirus but is recovering well and focusing on her health. 

Deng’s story resonates throughout the immigrant community as many are not just responsible for financially supporting their own families in the US but also their families in other countries. Yet, many employees have not had the same experience with their employers. At a Smithfield plant in St. Charles, South Dakota that closed only briefly to look into positive COVID-19 cases, a woman stated that she witnessed social distancing guidelines not being followed at work. “If I don’t go to work, they’ll say OK, but then I won’t have a job,” stated the woman. This puts many employees in a situation where they must choose between their physical health and the money they rely on to live.

The difficult decision and sacrifice to go to work that meatpacking employees are forced to make is only an issue because of the meat supply chain. With large manufacturers and processors of meat and poultry closing down due to coronavirus outbreaks, farmers have nowhere to send their animals to be processed. The enormous number of pigs that will be euthanized as a result of this may be the only option that farmers have. 

Photo courtesy of Ingredients Network

With more meatpacking plants opening as restrictions across the country are lifted, the amount of processed meat and poultry will soon increase and meet the demand of the country, yet this ability to process meat relies on the sacrifices and risk-taking of vulnerable immigrant populations. From the toilet paper industry to the meat industry, this pandemic has shed light on the need to restructure the supply chain so that it can withstand the unpredictable future.

If we as consumers are only able to obtain our desired goods at the risk of other human lives, there is a major flaw in a system that has been accepted and relied upon for far too long. The meat supply chain therefore needs to be restructured and redistributed throughout smaller communities, enabling local farmers and processors to play a larger role in the meat industry. 

With the frailty of the meat supply chain and its historic reliance on the exploitation of immigrant workers exposed, it is time to demand the fair treatment of all employees and the restructuring of these systems that harm society.

2 replies on “A Petri Dish for Employee Exploitation and COVID-19 Cases”

Great article Lauren. The disruption of the food supply chain is disturbing on many levels. From the low income workers to the farmers, that barely survive in good time, having to destroy animals, and dump milk, due to a change in demand. With Smithfield plant closures the bacon market became crazy. They had to cut back a lot of sku’s leaving some customers unable to get the brand they desired. The cheese market also is crazy as farmers had to dump milk, leaving a gap in production. Prices have been jumping every week.
You make a great point about local farms. Vermont is a good example of how we should organize the farmers and help them distribute their products locally.
A few years ago, I talked to Woolzie about helping distribution of NH farm goods. He was all about setting up the distribution end, but the issue was organizing the farmers and their goods. I thought about what to do, but had neither the time, money or resources

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