As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in March, the word essential took on a whole new meaning for workers across the United States. While many people stayed at home to stay safe, worked deemed as essential continued to go to work—facing exposure to the virus to make sure Americans had access to important goods and services.
The term essential worker might conjure thoughts of the same jobs for many people: grocery store clerks, food service workers, and medical professionals. However, across the nation, an unseen number of essential workers were on the frontlines of the coronavirus. Meatpackers continued to work around the clock to make sure America’s appetite for chicken, pork, beef, and other products could be met. They continued to work until something changed: some of their colleagues stopped coming into work.
As rumors spread about who became sick, workers became fearful for their lives. Their employers—JBS, Cargill, Tyson, and other food giants—weren’t keeping them up to date or informing them of their exposure. Then, as the problem worsened, companies shut down plants across the nation to sanitize them and install safety measures for workers. Tyson’s owner threatened a nationwide meat shortage. The Trump administration ordered plants to stay open. They did and workers kept getting sick.
How Bad Are Meatpacking Outbreaks as of June 2020?
From coast to coast, meatpacking workers have learned that, while the mechanisms of the spread of COVID-19 are still being studied, something about their job was making them very vulnerable to the virus. They knew because they saw it firsthand.
As of June of 2020, over 27,000 workers in the meatpacking industry across the nation have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 100 of those workers have died. The industry threat of a meat shortage may not have been as much of an emergency as some companies made it out to be.
Industry analysts have confirmed these claims were exaggerated. They point out that there was a record amount of pork exports to China in April. Just as companies were threatening a food crisis for Americans and Washington D.C. was ordering meatpacking plants to stay open, the nation was exporting a record amount of the product it was supposed to be running out of.
Places such as Shelby County, Texas are still grappling with the consequences of sending so many meatpacking workers to the frontlines of a pandemic. Recent reports indicate that a spike of 31 COVID-19 cases in the area are tied to a Tyson meatpacking plant. Other rural areas of Texas, such as Moore County, have had an infection rate that is 13 times higher than that of other more populated areas of the state. In early May, 243 people connected to the JBS plant in Cactus, Texas contracted the virus.
“They told the workers not to worry, everything was OK,” said one anonymous JBS worker in Worthington, Minnesota. “To be honest, they were not prepared at all. Nothing was OK. That's where many became scared, and it was kind of you either work or you don't eat situation.”