Last week, we reported on the issues that Tyson Foods meat processing plants have had with COVID-19 outbreaks. The plants have seen more than 40 percent of their workers become ill with the virus. Tyson workers in Black Hawk County, Iowa have represented 90 percent of the area's COVID-19 cases. Now, as Tyson considers reopening the plants most heavily hit by coronavirus, workers are worried about their safety. Meat processing plants are particularly conducive to the spread of COVID-19. As they work, meatpacking workers are only a couple of feet apart from each other for hours a day. They often share equipment in addition to space.
Tyson isn't the only company sending their workers into an environment that seems to be perfectly prone to outbreaks. In the United States, three companies control about 60 percent of the nation's beef. They also control a similarly significant part of the nation's chicken and pork supply. All three of these companies, Tyson, JBS, and Cargill Inc. have had significant outbreaks in their processing plants.
The "big three" of the American meat industry aren't the only companies with issues. One Smithfield plant in South Dakota has been the source of over half of the state's COVID-19 cases. With the Trump administration using the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open despite major virus outbreaks, it's crucial to look at the stories of the workers already impacted by COVID-19.
According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of May 4, 2020, at least 7,112 meatpacking workers have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 35 have died.
COVID-19 at the JBS Greeley Beef Plant
The JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado has been a hot-spot for COVID-19 since the early days of the virus. Based in Brazil, JBS has locations around the world that are dedicated to meat processing. The company makes about $50 billion revenue annually.
Starting in March, JBS employees noticed that many of their coworkers began getting sick. The company was alerted of the first worker from its Greeley plant to test positive on March 26. The plant continued to operate as normal, and employees received an allotment of meat to thank them for coming into work. By March 30, workers were so frustrated at the company's handling of rumored COIVD-19 cases that 800 of them walked out. Workers report supervisors ignoring their reports of testing positive and JBS's failure to provide protective equipment to them.
By the time that local press could run a story about conditions at the JBS plant, the Weld County Department of Health determined that 194 workers or their family members had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 between March 1 and April 1. Mark Wallace, head of the health department team, reported that many workers informed him that supervisors were not taking steps to make their workplace safer.
"These concerns expressed to clinicians included a perception by employees of a 'work while sick' culture," Wallace wrote to JBS. "If I find evidence of continued violations," he concluded. "I will seek assistance from the District Attorney to consider criminal actions against you."
Despite this, JBS kept the factory running. It also had problems at other plants. Plants owned by JBS in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Nebraska made headlines of their own due to outbreaks of coronavirus. Yet, workers from these plants report that they weren't informed by their employers about COVID-19 cases and were simply told to keep working. They relied on rumors to find out who had tested positive for the virus.
As of May 1, 2020, 245 workers from the Greeley JBS plant have become ill, and 6 have died. The plant reopened this week.
Cargill Plants & COVID-19
Like the other two industry giants that it shares most of the nation's meatpacking business with, Cargill Inc. has had issues with COVID-19. In early April, Cargill closed its Hazleton, Pennsylvania location. At the time of the plant's closing, 130 workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
A Cargill meatpacking plant is also the location of what is currently the worst COVID-19 outbreak in a North American meat processing plant. Cargill's plant in High River, Alberta has had 935 coronavirus infections and an additional 1,538 cases have been linked to the facility. It reopened on May 4 as the union representing the plant's workers negotiated terms with Cargill.
Smithfield's Pork Processing Plant: One of the Largest COVID-19 Clusters in the United States
In the United States, a Smithfield meatpacking facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota shared a similar fate as Cargill's Alberta plant. Smithfield is owned by WH Group, a Chinese company that is the world's largest pig farming and processing company. While it isn't the largest meatpacking company in the United States, Smithfield is certainly keeping up with its competitors when it comes to COVID-19 cases among its workers.
By mid-April, the company's Sioux Falls location became the largest COVID-19 cluster in the United States. It accounted for 40 percent of the state's confirmed cases. By the end of April, it had more than 800 COVID-19 cases tied to it.
Most distressingly, days before news broke about the Smithfield plant's outbreak, the CEO of Smithfield Foods informed investors that the company was operating all plants at 100% capacity. He said that Smithfield employees were afraid but were grateful to have a job. After news broke about the plant's first COVID-19 cases, the company offered workers a $500 bonus for not calling in sick.
The Safety of Plant Workers Should Be Top Priority During the COVID-19 Crisis
Protecting the food supply chain is crucial to help America get through the COVID-19 crisis. As companies push to reopen their meat processing plants, workers are facing a difficult decision: risk their health or lose their job. The first step to protecting the nation's meat supply should be protecting the safety of the workers who make it possible—something that industry giants failed to do during the first weeks of this crisis.
At Arnold & Itkin, our plant COVID-19 attorneys are ready to fight on behalf of workers suffering because of the failure of their employer to protect them at work. We've recovered billions of dollars on behalf of workers suffering because of negligent companies. No one should face a life-threatening illness because of their employer's failure to protect them from a virus at their workplace. After all, protecting workers isn't only about protecting the meat industry—it's also about protecting the communities they live in. The spread of COVID-19 stops when we can protect every person in the United States, including essential workers.
A consultation with our meatpacking plant COVID-19 lawyers is free of charge when you dial (888) 493-1629. We're ready to fight for the justice that you deserve and hold your employer accountable.