A federal food safety inspector in New York City, who oversaw meat processing plants, died from the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
A poultry worker in Mississippi, employed by America’s third largest chicken company, tested positive for the virus, causing a half-dozen workers to self-quarantine. Another worker in South Dakota, employed by the world’s largest pork producer, also tested positive.
In Georgia, dozens of workers walked out of a Perdue Farms chicken plant, demanding that the company do more to protect them.
And Tyson Foods told ProPublica on Friday that “a limited number of team members” had tested positive for the disease.
As COVID-19 makes its way across the country, leading to panic grocery buying in state after state, the stresses on the nation’s food supply chain have ratcheted ever higher. But in industries like meatpacking, which rely on often grueling shoulder-to-shoulder work, so have the risks to workers’ health.
In interviews this week, meat and poultry workers, some in the country without authorization, noted with irony that they have recently been labeled “essential” by an administration now facing down a pandemic. Yet the rules of their workplaces — and the need to keep food moving — pressure them to work in close quarters, even when sick.
And it’s unclear how federal regulations that traditionally protect workers from harm in their workplaces will address a potentially deadly coronavirus.
“They are listening about social distancing on the TV and some of them try to practice it in their home, but when they go to work, they can’t do it,” said Father Roberto Mena, who ministers to many poultry workers at St. Michael Catholic Church in Forest, Mississippi.
Many of the nation’s meatpackers declined to respond to specific questions about how they’ve dealt with infected workers or what they’ve done to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their plants. Or they offered vague assurances that workers are being protected.
So far, only two meatpacking companies — Tyson Foods and Cargill — have announced companywide temperature checks to screen employees for signs of the virus. Two more say they have begun rolling them out.
But except for unionized plants, meat and poultry workers rarely get paid when they’re sick. At many companies, including Tyson, workers receive disciplinary points for calling in sick. Because points lead to termination, workers told ProPublica, they and some of their colleagues have continued to work even when sick, despite the coronavirus.
“We are all afraid,” said Maria, who works on the evisceration line at a Tyson plant in Arkansas and asked to be identified by her first name. “The problem is if people feel sick, they’re not going to say anything because they need the money. They don’t want the points.”
In an email, Tyson said it had recently altered its policies to allow workers who contract the coronavirus or exhibit symptoms to apply for short-term disability without a waiting period. “This is an evolving situation and we’re continuing to consider additional measures to support our team,” spokesman Worth Sparkman said. “We don’t want team members who feel sick to come to work.”
Tyson announced this month it was “eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness.” But Maria said that at her plant, nothing had changed.
Despite the “essential” role meat and poultry workers play in the food chain, the sick-time bill signed by President Donald Trump last week doesn’t cover most meat and poultry workers because it exempts companies with more than 500 employees.
The uncertain economy, with millions of people filing jobless claims last week, is adding to the tension.
At Koch Foods in Mississippi, Ramirez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who asked to go by his last name, said a woman who worked near him showed up for her shift last week with a heavy cough. But after she told her supervisor, he said, she was told she couldn’t come back. The message was clear, he said. So, when he started feeling sick a few days later, he simply kept quiet and continued working.
“People are worried,” Ramirez said, that if they say they are sick, “they’ll fire us.”
Going to the doctor is not an option, he said, because he doesn’t have health insurance and fears it could expose his immigration status.
Koch Foods didn’t respond to calls and emails asking about its policies for sick workers.
Even before the coronavirus, the meat industry had complained of a labor shortage as low pay and harsh conditions collided with a tight labor market, tighter borders and dramatic reductions by the Trump administration in the number of refugees, who make up the backbone of many plants’ workforce.
While there’s no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food, workers say they fear it could spread among them, even though they wear butcher coats and latex gloves, and the plants are sanitized every night.
If it does, it could take out a critical cog in the nation’s food supply chain just as it struggles to keep up with increased demand, workers and their advocates said. Grocery meat sales, excluding deli meat, surged a staggering 77% for the week ending March 15, according to one industry analysis.
To meet the demand, companies have been scrambling, adding additional weekend shifts and changing lines to produce whole birds and bigger cuts of beef. Under pressure from unions and wage increases at supermarkets and warehouses, some companies like Cargill and National Beef have announced temporary $2 per hour bonuses for the next several weeks to retain their workers and reward them for sticking through difficult times.
Company executives have said that the empty shelves aren’t a sign of a food shortage and that they’re capable of meeting the surge, aided in part by lower demand from restaurants that have been ordered to close.
“Our primary focus is to keep our plants running so that we can feed America,” Tyson’s president, Dean Banks, said on CNN. “We’re running the plants as hard as we can.”
And some analysts note that even if an outbreak of the virus forced a plant to close, the industry — with more than 500,000 employees at 4,000 slaughterhouses and processing plants across the country — is big enough to absorb the loss.
Tim Ramey, a retired food industry analyst, said “there could be significant disruptions” in a company’s output if an outbreak occurred. But supermarkets and restaurants buy meat from many suppliers, he said, and another plant could pick up the slack.
“There are plenty of ways you could have risk to the worker supply,” Ramey said. “I doubt that would be enough to disrupt the food supply.”
But no one knows what would happen if multiple plants suffered outbreaks.
The closest precedent may be immigration raids, which have temporarily shuttered meat and poultry plants periodically over the last 25 years. For months after, those plants struggled to find new workers and ramp up to speed. But the supply lines continued to feed America.
Some immigrant workers caught up in those raids now marvel that the country is leaning on them. Last summer, after finishing his shift pulling the guts out of thousands of chickens, Ramirez flipped on his TV and watched in shock as immigration agents descended on central Mississippi, rounding up hundreds of his coworkers in the Trump administration’s biggest immigration sting.
In the weeks that followed, Ramirez watched the three children of a friend who’d been detained and hunkered down at home, fearing he could be next. It was easy to feel disposable, he said, especially when Trump praised the raids as “a very good deterrent.”
Now, when Ramirez watches the news, Trump is calling workers like him “critical,” telling them, “you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”
“I don’t understand, if they have a big need for all of the workers,” Ramirez asked, “why aren’t they worried about us?”
The slaughtering of chickens, hogs and cattle has become increasingly automated in the last few decades. But several tasks on the disassembly line still have to be done by hand. In poultry plants, in an area known as “live hang,” workers in a small, black-lit room crowd around a trough grabbing live chickens by their feet and hanging them on shackles.
In another area known as “debone,” workers stand side by side cutting raw chicken into breasts and tenders, so close that they occasionally cut coworkers with their knives.
In pork plants, workers are so packed together that a little over a decade ago, two dozen workers at a Minnesota factory developed a neurological illness from inhaling aerosolized pig brains that drifted from a nearby station that was making an ingredient used in stir-fry thickeners.
ProPublica asked the nation’s largest meat companies what they were doing to try to achieve social distancing. Cargill, which produces billions of pounds of beef and turkey for supermarkets and restaurants each year, was the only company that said it was doing anything other than staggering start and break times. Daniel Sullivan, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based meatpacker, said it had increased spacing in its factory work areas and put up partitions in its cafeteria.
The evisceration line where Maria, the Tyson employee, works doesn’t have as many people as other parts of the factory because it is heavily automated. But she said that because workers can’t leave the line unless it’s an emergency, she regularly encounters large crowds as everyone rushes to the bathroom during breaks. The company has placed hand sanitizers at the entrance, she said, but inside the plant, the bathrooms don’t always have paper towels.
As COVID-19 cases at the plants become public, workers fear it’s only the beginning.
On Monday, Sanderson Farms, the nation’s third largest chicken company, said an employee at its McComb, Mississippi, plant had tested positive for the virus. Sanderson said the employee’s work area was contained to one small processing table. In response, the company notified its workers and sent six other employees in the work area home to self-quarantine with pay.
The company did not respond to calls or emails seeking additional information.
On Thursday, a worker at pork producer Smithfield Foods’ plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, tested positive. The company told the Argus Leader that the employee’s work area and all common areas were “thoroughly sanitized.” But it did not say anything about workers who might have come in contact with the employee.
There have been even fewer details about the federal food safety inspector who died. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement that he was “terribly saddened to hear” that one of the department’s employees had passed away due to the coronavirus and thanked “those working on the front lines of our food supply chain.” But the department did not specify which plants the inspector had worked in or what had been done to alert or quarantine others the inspector may have been in contact with.
Paula Schelling, a union representative for the nation’s food inspectors at the American Federation of Government Employees, said the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service needs to do more to protect its front-line workers.
“FSIS is doing nothing to provide any protection for any employee who is out in the field,” she said. “They are just saying, ‘We are following the CDC guidelines.’ What does that mean to us?”
Concerns that meat companies aren’t being forthcoming have already led to increased anxiety at several plants. Workers who walked out of the Perdue plant in Georgia said the unrest started because supervisors dismissed concerns that some employees were continuing to work despite being in contact with people who had the coronavirus.
“We’re not getting nothing,” Kendilyn Granville told a TV news reporter outside the plant Monday night. “No type of compensation, no nothing, not even no cleanliness, no extra pay — no nothing. We’re up here risking our life for chicken.”
Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said that after speaking with managers, the majority of those who walked out returned to work.
“We know that many are feeling anxious during these uncertain times and we’re doing everything we can to take good care of our associates while continuing to produce safe and reliable food,” she said.
Typically, when workers feel unsafe, they can complain to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But it’s unclear how OSHA will respond to complaints related to the coronavirus. The agency, which has seen its ranks depleted under the Trump administration, has issued guidance for employers. But there is no specific standard related to the virus, and the agency has not said how it might interpret its general duty clause, which requires employers to keep their worksites free from recognized hazards that might cause death or “serious physical harm.”
Employers are only required to notify OSHA when an employee is hospitalized, suffers an amputation or is killed at work. But under a patchwork of rules, some employers might have to notify their state and local health departments.
As cases started to pop up this week, some employers began offering additional pay. Perdue said it would provide all hourly workers a $1-per-hour raise for the next several weeks. Hormel, the maker of Spam, said it would offer a $300 bonus for full-time workers and $150 for part-time associates.
On Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 250,000 food processing workers, said it had negotiated additional pay and benefits increases, including a $600 bonus in May for its members at the nation’s second-largest meatpacker, JBS, which includes Pilgrim’s chicken. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not answer whether the company would match that for nonunion employees.
Several large meat and poultry companies, including Tyson, Smithfield, Sanderson and Koch, have not announced raises or bonuses.
On Friday, Perdue told ProPublica it was starting to roll out temperature checks at its plants. And Bruett said JBS had set up “triage stations” outside plants to screen employees for temperature and symptoms. But it’s unclear if all employees will be tested or only those exhibiting symptoms.
Meanwhile, Venceremos, a group advocating for poultry workers in northwest Arkansas, has started a petition asking that Tyson and other processors provide paid sick leave for workers as the coronavirus begins to spread to rural America.
“Everyone is realizing that they are essential and have been essential to the country,” said Magaly Licolli, one of the group’s leaders. “And now it’s time that everybody should demand fair rights for them. That’s what we’ve been arguing all this time. They are the ones that provide for the country.”
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