Meat and poultry plants are Covid hotbeds -- and drove outbreaks: report

Working conditions in meatpacking plants likely led to the spread of COVID-19 in rural areas of the U.S. in the early months of the pandemic, new U.S. Department of Agriculture research shows.

The space between workers, who stand close together on production lines as they make the same cut over and over, was probably the main factor that caused the outbreaks, according to the USDA's report published last month. Overall, meatpacking plant workers were much more likely to be exposed to the virus than workers in other manufacturing jobs.

"It is a strong possibility that specifically the physical proximity of the workers in meatpacking plants is directly linked to the outbreaks that we saw in the spring and summer of 2020," said Thomas Krumel, one of the paper's authors and now an assistant professor at North Dakota State University.

The paper, according to the researchers, could be the first effort to empirically identify conditions that caused coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants at an industry-wide level.

The paper's conclusions support what many meatpacking workers and advocates suspected during the early months of the pandemic: Working close together and high speeds of production, which lead to an even more compact workplace, contributed to the virus' spread.

"Workers at the beginning of the pandemic identified immediately they were at higher risk of getting COVID than other workers because of the closeness," said Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos, a worker-based organization in Arkansas that advocates for poultry workers. "You know, in some departments, they work shoulder-to-shoulder."

Investigate Midwest reached out to the North American Meat Institute to get the industry's take on the new study, but it did not immediately provide a statement. In the past, the lobbying group has argued rates of infection among meatpacking plant workers were below rates of infection for the general population.

Since the start of the pandemic, at least 50,000 meatpacking workers have contracted coronavirus and 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest tracking. People of color make up 60% of the meatpacking workforce but accounted for 90% of coronavirus infections in the industry in the pandemic's first few months.

The new USDA analysis compared rural counties with a large number of meatpacking plants to areas that depended on another manufacturing industry between mid-March to mid-September 2020.

Krumel and his coauthor, Corey Goodrich, a University of Connecticut research analyst, found that COVID-19 cases in meatpacking-dependent rural counties in mid-April 2020 were nearly 10 times higher than in other areas that depended on other manufacturing industries.

By mid-July 2020, however, the number of coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants had dropped and the difference between meatpacking-dependent counties and the other areas disappeared. The pattern remained the same throughout the rest of the time studied.

The September report ascribed the situation to meatpacking companies implementing policies to protect workers, such as requiring face masks and erecting physical barriers. However, the researchers couldn't verify that safety precautions single-handedly caused the change.

Licolli said that workers and advocates had to fight to get companies to implement safety measures, demanding workplaces provide personal protection equipment. Even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised manufacturing workers to be six feet apart, Licolli said, workers still found themselves working in close proximity and in crowded hallways.

The analysis found key differences between meatpacking and other manufacturing industries, with the most significant being physical proximity between employees. This was followed by exposure to disease and infections, which could be attributed to workers coming into contact with foodborne illnesses.

Meatpacking facilities were already "incredibly vulnerable" to COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the paper, because of consolidation within the industry resulting in large processing plants with hundreds and sometimes thousands of workers.

"This was further exacerbated by the close physical proximity of workers within these plants, which helped to facilitate the disease's spread—especially among frontline workers," the report said.

Meatpacking companies including JBS and Smithfield have argued in court that they're not liable for employees getting sick, and court decisions favoring workers are rare.

The analysis' authors theorized that, based on what's happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, meatpacking plants, in general, might be more susceptible to disease and other viral outbreaks.

The analysis, however, suggests that other factors such as low temperatures and a loud work environment — in which people may have to shout — had less of an impact on the overall spread of the coronavirus in meatpacking plants and did not vary significantly between other manufacturing industries.

A study cited in the working paper found that poultry processing plants that received waivers allowing them to raise line speeds beyond federal limits saw more COVID-19 cases compared to facilities that didn't get waivers.

"Firms that have higher line speeds necessarily needed to have workers in closer physical proximity as a result of the increased line speeds," Krumel said. "The increased line speeds likely resulted in workers being closer to each other."

Line speeds played a role in a 2020 lawsuit against Smithfield when workers at the company's Milan, Missouri, pork processing plant sued over a lack of coronavirus safety measures.

In addition to the lack of distance between workers, high line speeds prevented employees from being able to change a soiled mask, step away to cough or sneeze, or wash their hands, said Axel Fuentes, executive director of Rural Community Workers Alliance, which advocates for the rights and safety of Smithfield employees in Milan.

"Having a high line speed definitely impacted the workers during COVID because that means more pieces of meat that they have to process per minute," Fuentes said. "That limited them taking prevention measures and if they don't work fast enough, they can get reprimanded by the supervisors."

OSHA inspection documents obtained by Investigate Midwest confirmed the company generally used plastic barriers as a substitute for physical distancing, and as of May 2020, in two areas of the plant, employees worked side-by-side with no barriers.

And, as more and more people got sick or quarantined, the remaining employees struggled to keep up.

"The people that were still working, had to work even faster and sometimes even do multiple jobs, because they didn't have enough people to do what they needed to get the production back up," a former Smithfield employee told Investigate Midwest in April.