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Coronavirus Casts Uncertainty, Illness, & Death Over Nation’s Meatpacking Plants

Last month, there were less than 1,600 coronavirus cases reported among Tyson employees. Today, that number has ballooned to more than 7,000 cases of COVID-19 according to research from the Washington Post. These cases have occurred as the company has overhauled how its facilities functions. Tyson has set up medical clinics, checks for fevers at the start of shifts, requires face masks, and has installed plastic dividers between workers among other efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. Yet, three meatpacking companies—Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield—account for over 11,000 coronavirus cases in the United States.  

Are Food Companies Doing Enough to Protect Workers from COVID-19? 

Since these numbers are early and pieced together from various sources, it’s likely that we’re only seeing a portion of the COVID-19 problem in the meatpacking industry. Notably, the industry is still seeing a surge in cases at some plants, including an outbreak that has caused over 220 workers to test positive for the virus at a Sherman, Texas Tyson Foods plant. 

While companies have taken steps to prevent the virus, they’ve been unable to stop its rapid spread at their facility. Meatpacking worker deaths have tripled according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a group that’s tracking industry deaths through local news reports. Four plants that reopened after extensive cleaning and procedure adjustments had over 700 positive cases after doing so. In some states, meatpacking plants are at the heart of the worst viral outbreaks.  

According to the Environmental Working Group, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota have had meatpacking workers represent 18, 20, and 29 percent of their positive coronavirus cases respectively. According the group, meat plants are usually in rural parts of the United States and are the largest employers in the areas they are in. As a result, coronavirus cases within 15 miles of meat plants are occurring at twice the national average. 

When the Waterloo, Iowa Tyson plant reopened on May 7, the company said that the location adopted safety practices to protect workers. On the same day, Black Hawk County health officials reported that over 1,000 of the plant’s employees tested positive for the virus. For many, Tyson reacted too slowly to actually stop the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities. One of the company’s critics is Representative Ras Smith of Waterloo who called Tyson’s management of the outbreak “appalling.” 

“Tyson did not go above and beyond,” said Smith. “They did what they already should have done.” 

Meatpacking Workers Continue to Fear for Their Lives 

In Greely, Colorado, more than 300 workers at the JBS beef plant have contracted COVID-19. Before the plant shut down on April 16, about 100 workers tested positive for coronavirus, and three had died from it. By the time the plant reopened on April 24, one more worker died. Four others died after operations resumed. 

“We are raising hell because the numbers continue to rise,” said Kim Cordova, president of the local union. “People are scared to go to work because people keep getting sick. There are hundreds of workers who have not come back. We don’t know if they have moved on, if they are on ventilators. We can’t find them.” 

While JBS has invested more than $100 million in safety measures, Cordova worries it might not be enough. She mentions that workers still share small walkways and that they often need to take off their masks to hear each other over the facility’s loud machinery. Cordova also expressed concern about the plant’s slaughter area that had no dividers at the time of her visit.  

“They are on rafters, right next to one another,” she said. 

For its part, JBS has said that it’s trying its hardest to make a safe environment for workers. Yet, for many, it’s too little, too late from the meatpacking industry.  

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