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President Orders Help For Meat Plant Workers, But Some Say It's Too Little Too Late

Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to shore up the country’s meat production amid concerns about worker safety at meatpacking plants.

The order keeps beef, poultry and pork processors open by invoking the Defense Production Act.

Thousands of meatpacking workers across the country have contracted COVID-19, and plants in Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado have closed in response. The order says those closures not only threaten the supply chain but undermine critical infrastructure.

The mandate also authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to prioritize and allocate protective equipment and other gear needed to keep wokers at the plants safe as spelled out in federal guidelines issued earlier this week.

Previously, it was up to the plants to devise how to keep workers safe from the coronavirus. That’s led to a hodgepodge of policies and confusion among workers.

When workers at the Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska clock in, they might pass a flyer taped up by the locker room. Some will stop to read it—if it’s in their language. Hundreds will miss it while hustling to work.

Harvest Public Media spoke with several employees who said this is how Smithfield has issued COVID-19 updates to its staff of 3,000 during the pandemic. In a recent statement, the company said management is communicating with staff using written materials, verbal updates, and a company app.

Besides lackluster communication, workers across companies say inconsistent and unclear policies have also added to a stressful few weeks. One Cargill employee in central Nebraska, who didn’t want her name used for fear of losing her job, said she was sent home for two weeks for coughing at work. 

She said she saw her doctor--who told her she did not have COVID-19--and wasn’t tested. When she returned to the plant, she said she was told Cargill would only cover part of that time: the company has said it offers 14 days of leave for employees.

That’s a terrifying prospect for many workers, many of whom are the sole breadwinners for their families, especially right now.

Workers and advocates across the region say plants haven't been clear with workers about how the pandemic is affecting their plants. Instead, many workers say they are getting crucial information through the grapevine, which isn’t always reliable.

Employees also are turning to the United Food Commercial Workers, the union representing workers at the plant in Crete and several others in Nebraska. The union has told members at least 47 workers have tested positive for coronavirus.

A ‘hodgepodge’ of strategies

Eric Reeder, president of local 293 UCFW, has had his hands full for weeks. Between calls from plant managers, union leadership, and workers who are terrified of catching the virus, the phone rings nonstop.

Part of his stress has stemmed from navigating various companies’ pandemic policies. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ statewide Directed Health Measures, which closed schools, small businesses, and implemented crowd limits, don’t include large employers like meatpackers.

Without any guidance from government officials, Reeder says COVID-19 policies at Nebraska’s plants initially ran the gamut.

“None of this is uniform,” Reeder said on a call squeezed between meetings. “We were negotiating with each plant, so we ended up with this hodgepodge. Every location is different in some way.”

Reeder thinks that in some cases, not being required to act early or aggressively enough may have helped the virus spread in some plants.

At a JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, management initially required a positive COVID-19 test from sick employees to get paid time off—a tall order for anybody in the city in early April. Tests were originally rationed for healthcare workers and first responders.

The company also rolled out $600 bonuses for anybody without an absence during the pandemic before later issuing an additional $4 raise after negotiations with national UCFW officials. At least 40 percent of the area’s cases are now tied to that plant.

“As evidenced by the way JBS’ infection progressed, they started with one reported case and jumped to 10 in a matter of days,” Reeder said. “That tells me that even though they quarantined that individual and sanitized the area, they obviously didn't have a handle on it.”

Many companies also weren’t initially receptive to union recommendations, like expanding sick leave, premium pay or distancing workers. Reeder thinks that could be because some policies, like a six-foot distancing mandate or relaxed attendance rules, could hurt a company’s bottom line.

“Unless you lay off workers and slow the lines down to space people out, it's very difficult to be able to separate actually on the line,” he said.

“And I think that at times, production takes a primary focus over workers’ safety.”

High stakes for meatpacking towns

In many communities, a Tyson or Smithfield might be the largest workplace in town, employing thousands, so the fate of the town is tied to what’s happening at the plant.

Plus, a closure can have national impacts on meat supply chains: packers in Minnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, and Indiana have had to shut down due to a high number of cases. Most recently, a Tyson plant of 2,800 workers in Waterloo, Iowa, shut down after at least 150 cases emerged at the plant.

That’s why officials such as Nebraska Gov. Ricketts want to keep them open. At a recent press conference, Gov. Ricketts maintained that he “does not foresee” closing any of Nebraska’s meatpacking plants, even as cases rise. 

“Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food? You want to talk about some of these protests that are going on right now? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products,” he said.

“This is why it’s vitally important that we keep our food processors open and do everything we can to assure our food supply chain because we would have civil unrest if that was not the case.”

Ricketts has mobilized resources to help keep them afloat. The state recently started sending experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to plants statewide to advise on safety measures.

So far, the team seems happy with what they’ve seen. But Gov. Ricketts recently clarified that employees have not been included in communication with packers about bolstering safety or HR policies.

Micky Devitt, who works with the labor advocacy organization Heartland Workers Center, agrees that the stakes are high. That’s led some advocates to say closures could have been avoided if companies had done more sooner, either on their own or at the urging of state and local entities.

And if they won’t close, she said, they can at least be transparent with how they are handling outbreaks.

“If employees don't know what the agreements are, and it's behind closed doors what these conversations are covering, there's isn’t accountability,” she said.

“And there's not transparency to the public about what is going on in these meatpacking plants that we're all relying on.”

Now that many meatpacking plants are COVID-19 hotspots, companies and local health officials are scrambling to contain the outbreaks: in late April, the CDC issued optional recommendations for companies that they separate workers, install physical barriers, and expand sick leave policies.

But workers are still frustrated that they have been left out of conversations around their own safety: Now, for themselves and their families, all they can hope is that they don’t get sick.

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media

Christina Stella