A year after COVID-19 broke into the meat packaging industry, causing nationwide factory closures, concerns about meat shortages, and an executive order calling for continued production lines, frontline workers continue to face risks. I will.
Since April last year, more than 50,000 cases have been involved in the meat packaging industry, killing at least 248 workers. Follow-up by the Midwest Center for research reports..
The same features that enable stable churn of cheap meat, but the perfect breeding of aerial illnesses, such as cramped workplaces, underreported illness culture, rural, immigrant, and undocumented worker executives. The industry is particularly vulnerable to coronaviruses because it also provides land, so we often live and work together as there are few other jobs.
The number of cases of coronavirus associated with meat packaging has declined since last year due to industry-wide efforts to protect workers and recent national vaccine deployments. However, many facilities are still ill. According to state data, more than 200 cases have been reported in North Carolina in the past few months alone. And at least one worker died in March.
The new Biden administration has promised stricter standards than those implemented under former President Trump, but they have not yet. On the other hand, it lacks accountability.
“As the pandemic continues, essential American food workers continue to face daily COVID risks at the forefront of meat filling and food processing plants across the country,” said Mark Perone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union. Stated. In a press release.. UFCW represents many meat packaging workers.
He said the union has been working to increase access to vaccines to “prevent the fatal outbreaks we saw last year and keep food supplies safe as the crisis continues.”
Minorities, on the other hand, are primarily burdened. About 90% of workers in infected meat packaging factories were of color. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..
These are the same groups who are struggling to get vaccinated.Minorities and limited English-speaking people (the population staffed in meat packaging factories) say they are unlikely to be vaccinated in the first three months of 2021. CDC study released in late March..
Workers who have been hoping for vaccines and the new administration for months still face dangerous jobs.
In mid-March, President Joe Biden gave the Occupational Safety and Health Administration a deadline to decide whether to implement “emergency temporary standards” to combat coronavirus in workplaces, including meat packaging factories.This is OSHA Hands-off approach to surveillance Of safety standards during the Trump administration.
However, the authorities passed the deadline without the word of the decision.
“OSHA has been working hard to figure out which standards are needed,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor told USA TODAY and the Midwest Center.
Meat packaging factories seemed to be the driving force behind the early COVID-19 cases of the pandemic.
In April and early May, counties with a large population of meat packaging workers had about 10 times more cases than all other counties. According to a USDA analysis..another Survey Approximately 8% of all cases and approximately 4% of all deaths by midsummer have been fixed in the meat packaging industry.
However, according to the USDA, in the summer, similar numbers began to be reported in counties with high and low populations of meat packaging workers.
Recently, far fewer cases have been reported in meat packaging factories. Companies such as Tyson, Smithfield and JBS all say they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on worker protection since last year. Many installed plastic sheets between workers on the line, provided employees with masks and face shields, and measured temperatures daily. Some offer more generous sick leave.
“Companies quickly incorporated their procedures, practices, and methods into their processes,” when federal guidelines were published in April 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in meat and poultry plants. Sara Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, said. Last interview.
However, viruses are still a daily reality for many workers.
In North Carolina, where nearly 4,800 workers have been positive since the pandemic began, more than 200 cases related to the meat packaging industry have been reported in the last two months. According to state data.. At least one meat packaging worker died in March.
The JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, was one of the first facilities to close this month a year ago and drew public attention to the plight of workers. When a team from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited the factory in April 2020, it was found that the company had provided workers with facial coverings that did not meet government guidelines. At least six workers have died.
After nearly 300 workers tested positive, the state considered the outbreak resolved on October 20. But about three weeks later, a new case urged the state to: Declare a new outbreak At the factory.
To date, more than 100 workers have been positive, and Colorado believes the outbreak continues as of March 31.
Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman, said about 75% of the workers at the Greeley plant had been vaccinated as of early April.
“Given that COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, we secure all team members while using compulsory masks, free surveillance tests, and all in-factory prevention, including social distance. We will maintain the measures. You will be given the opportunity to be vaccinated as soon as possible. “
Despite industry efforts, many meat packaging factory workers remain unvaccinated.
About one-third of all Tyson factory workers were shot.To Financial documentsAccording to Tyson, about 106,000 workers were paid a pandemic bonus and about 30,000 employees were vaccinated.
When consumables become available, the company offers free on-site vaccinations, and if employees are vaccinated during off-hours, they will be covered for up to four hours, he said.
“We are responsible for feeding people seriously. By caring for team members, they take care of the US food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to truck drivers, retailers and restaurants. I know what to do, “Barrerson said. “We will continue to do our best to stay ahead of this challenging and evolving pandemic.”
At JBS, 58% of all factory workers are vaccinated, and spokesman Bruett said, “Active cases make up less than one-third of the workforce.” I am.
Smithfield did not say how many of its employees were vaccinated, but spokeswoman Keira Lombard said plants across the country facilitated the distribution of shots.
“This continues to be an active and ongoing effort at this point,” she said. “The incidence of new coronavirus among our employees is very low and has been going on for a long time.”
Worker safety was postponed during the Trump administration.
Last year, OSHA received 15% more complaints than 2019, but authorities conducted half the number of tests in 2019. According to the February report From an inspector general of the Ministry of Labor.
Many inspections were virtually carried out, and the inspector general said the practices would probably lead to a dangerous working environment.
“Although remote testing may help reduce the chance of COVID-19 infection.” Report said, “Reducing on-site inspections can lead to more workplace accidents, injuries, deaths, or employee illness.”
Deaths associated with meat packaging factories were often not investigated. By January, OSHA had not inspected 26 of the 65 factories that killed at least one worker, found by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center.
The Biden administration has taken several steps to remedy the situation.
OSHA announced on March 12th Prioritize testing at sites that have the highest risk of getting a virus. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor said this included locations with workers less than 6 feet apart, including meat packaging factories.
Authorities also said they would re-examine some workplaces and prioritize on-site inspections unless those inspections were not done safely.
According to Midwest Center tracking, nearly 500 plants occurred in addition to 65 dead plants. Since announcing the announcement of the emphasis program, OSHA has begun two follow-up tests, a spokesman said.
One was an on-site inspection of the American Foods Group factory in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with 366 COVID-19 cases. Milwaukee Journal-According to Sentinel.. According to Springfield News-Leader, the other was the Tyson Chicken Plant in Noel, Missouri, which had 371 cases.
“Our goal is to thoroughly investigate all complaints we receive,” said a department spokesman. “Our updated enforcement approach makes it more certain that we are doing it.”
In the midst of all this is a worker who continues to be forced into even more dangerous work by a pandemic.
Hired at the Arkansas Tyson factory and asked to be identified by his own name to protect his livelihood, Alfredo saw the scars of the pandemic in person. In addition to his fast-paced work, many of his colleagues are dealing with losses, he said.
“They look destroyed,” he said.
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The Center is an independent, non-profit news room based in Illinois that provides research and corporate coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag, and related issues. USA TODAY is funding fellowships at the center to expand its impact on agribusiness and its communities.
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