Amner Martinez still doesn’t know all the details from when his 74-year-old father Concepcion got dangerously sick with COVID-19 near the beginning of the pandemic.
Martinez’s father works at the Tyson Foods plant in Perry, Iowa, the site of an outbreak in spring 2020 that affected 730 workers.
Martinez said his father, who he called a workaholic like himself, didn’t tell him just how sick he was until he was recovering.
“He said that he was, like, on his knees, basically talking to God,” Martinez said.
Yet, Martinez said his father and stepmother didn’t want to go to the hospital.
“Nobody knew what it was or, you know, different information was coming from different ways, so I feel like they were ashamed about it, like, ‘We’re contagious,’” he said.
The Martinez family is originally from Guatemala. They moved to Iowa from California in the 1990s to work in Tyson’s Perry plant for double what they were earning in California.
Martinez and most of his extended family have worked in the Perry plant. But now Martinez operates his own staffing agency, and his clients include some meatpacking companies.
“I know exactly the hard part of [the job],” he said. “And I also know the opportunity that has provided my entire family to just move out of poverty, really.”
A shift in the industry’s workforce
Meatpacking plants are filled with hard-working immigrants like the Martinez family: 38 percent of the country’s meat processing workers are foreign-born, compared to just 17 percent of all workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s a tough job. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder processing animal parts all day.
But the average hourly wage is $15 an hour, which is double the minimum wage in several Midwest states, including Iowa. And the job typically requires little to no English skills or education, which makes it attractive to some recent immigrants.
It’s only in the past few decades that meatpacking companies have relied on immigrant workers to do these jobs.
The workforce shift started back in the 1960s when Iowa Beef Packers, now Tyson Foods, transformed the whole industry, said Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University.
The company unveiled a new, more efficient way of processing meat that involved faster lines. The new process took much of the skill out of a job typically filled by trained butchers at the time, by having workers make the same repetitive cut for hours.
Swenson said it upended the industry and the unions — which most of the workforce belonged to at the time — and made the job more dangerous.
Gradually, the workforce that was initially made up of mostly U.S.-born White and Black Iowans started quitting. Companies initially struggled to replace them.
“They found they were able to be attractive to and retain workers who were foreign-born, primarily those who are refugees from Asia and/or people who were coming from Mexico and Central America,” Swenson said.
In Storm Lake, Iowa, attorney Willis Hamilton said he witnessed this workforce transformation first hand.
As a high school and college student in the 1950s and ‘60s, Hamilton said he worked summers at the pork plant in town.
The plant is operated by Tyson Foods now, but back then it was run by Hygrade.
Hamilton said the work was hard and uncomfortable.
“You work with knives and saws and other tools that could cut your fingers off. They have byproducts that are horribly stinky and not comfortable to deal with,” he said. “I remember one day, for instance, in my job at Hygrade I had to scoop pigs’ feet all day.”
But he said he was making just over $3 an hour, which was double what other summer jobs paid at the time.
Hamilton said when the Hygrade plant closed in the early 1980s, it sat idle for a few years before Iowa Beef Packers, which he calls the “corporate outlaw,” took it over.
“They gradually weeded out all the old employees, replaced them with folks they brought in from various locations, and they worked them hard,” he said. “They worked hard to keep the union out.”
Tyson acquired the pork plant from IBP in 2002 and the turkey plant in 2014, when it merged with Hillshire Brands.
He said Tyson continues to rely heavily on immigrants.
“One of the reasons, I think, is because they don't complain as much as the average worker,” he said. “They're just glad to have a job. They … work very hard.”
Hamilton, whose family-run law firm dates back to the 1860s, has spent decades representing workers at Tyson plants in workers compensation claims. He is now working on a handful of claims and wrongful death lawsuits related to the pork plant COVID outbreak in May 2020.
He said the cases are tough because there’s very little legal precedent on pandemic-related worker injuries and deaths.
“The law isn't quite up to speed on how to deal with it,” Hamilton said. “So [you’ve] got to, kind of, make your own law.”
Additionally, Hamilton said a new state law Iowa enacted in June could make his cases more difficult. The law gives businesses, nursing homes and medical facilities more liability protections against customer and employee lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposures. In an unusual move, the legislature created the law to apply retroactively to cover all of 2020.
Challenges with addressing health care
The outbreaks at the plants may have hit especially hard because of the high numbers of immigrants, who typically have poor health care options, said Caroline Johnson, the clinical director for Proteus, a nonprofit that’s launching a pilot health clinic at Midwest Premier Foods in Polk County, Iowa.
“It can be really challenging with this population to address their health care,” Johnson said. “And unfortunately, they have so many health disparities and are at greater risk for diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol.”
Johnson said these conditions put workers at higher risk of getting severe COVID.
Daniel Zinnel, the CEO of Proteus, said the nonprofit wanted to start working with meatpacking plant workers, even before the pandemic, because they face many barriers to health care.
“Some of the workers don't take the insurance because it's a huge expense out of their pocket,” he said. “Others potentially do have access to insurance, but maybe can't get to a clinic … because they're working different shifts and can't get off work.”
Immigrants are significantly more likely to be uninsured, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2019, nearly half of all non-elderly undocumented immigrants and 25 percent of lawfully present immigrants were uninsured, compared to just 9 percent of U.S. citizens.
Earlier this year, Tyson Foods started a similar initiative to Proteus, partnering with Marathon Health to open seven pilot health clinics in plants across the country.
Claudia Coplein, the chief medical officer for Tyson, said the company made plans to start the program before the pandemic because it found frontline workers weren’t using their health benefits and were only seeking care if it was an emergency.
“We're really trying to help them overcome these barriers, and also, at the same time, help them to detect health conditions early and promote healthier habits,” Coplein said.
But these private pilot programs only cover a small fraction of workers at plants.
Local, state and federal public health programs are typically responsible for addressing the broader population. But public health spending as a proportion of total health spending has been decreasing in the U.S. since 2000, according to a report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.
Some states, like Iowa, have cut state public health initiatives directed at minority health in recent years.
Janice Edmunds-Wells said she was a one-woman team running the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Office of Minority and Multicultural Health for more than a decade before she was abruptly fired in 2017, when the state legislature cut the $106,000 department in its entirety.
“I remember that day because I came into the office that morning, and I had only been on the job for maybe, like, 30 minutes,” she said. “And they called me into human resources, and they told me what had happened.”
Edmunds-Wells said her job was to strengthen awareness and connections for health care initiatives for the state’s diverse populations.
In a statement, Iowa public health spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said even though the office was eliminated in 2017, the department has taken steps to address minority health.
For example, in 2021, the department hired a health equity coordinator to bring an “equity lens” to programs at IDPH and the Iowa Department of Human Services, she said.
“We are committed to addressing health disparities in populations disproportionately impacted by health inequities,” Ekstrand said.
Claudia Corwin, an occupational medicine specialist with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said most states’ public health departments weren’t prepared for the COVID-19 outbreaks at the plants — and still aren’t.
“Very, very few states have actual protections for vulnerable food system workers in the event of public health emergencies like the COVID pandemic and that needs to be coming to the legislative level,” she said.
Afraid to speak out
Some research has found minority communities, particularly those in rural meatpacking towns, were deeply affected physically, mentally and financially by the pandemic.
David Peters, a sociology professor at Iowa State University, surveyed 73 Iowa communities, including four meatpacking communities that all have minority populations above 60 percent.
“They suffered, in particular, economically by having reduced working hours, wage cuts, benefit losses, losing their jobs, and of course, health impacts,” including hospitalizations, he said.
But Peters said workers in rural meatpacking towns recognize there are “big problems” in their community — but also reported being afraid to speak out over concerns about health and safety — for fear of retaliation from their employer.
“A lot of people are upset, but no one really wants to speak out because there [are] consequences. No one wants to lose their job,” he said.
At a congressional hearing in October on the conditions of meatpacking plants during the outbreaks, Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said she struggled to get workers to speak publicly about their experiences.
The industry has gotten a lot more concentrated over the last 20 years, she said.
“So now you have these huge companies that have unlimited resources,” Berkowitz said. “But you also have sort of a very terrified workforce.”
Searching for help
Recently, meatpacking companies, like businesses in other industries, have been facing major frontline worker shortages.
Dalia Kyi, who previously worked for EMBARC, an organization that supports refugees, said some workers quit because they were scared; but others left their jobs due to pandemic-related factors, like not being able to find child care.
“[If] the schools are closed then the parents cannot go to work,”Kyi said.
When workers quit, those remaining pull longer hours, which experts warn could lead to higher rates of injuries.
One worker at the Tyson Perry plant said there have been times his department had just half its normal staff. The worker, who’s Karen — an ethnic minority from Myanmar — asked not to be identified over concerns he might face retaliation at work.
“You have to do extra work for other people because ... people are missing,” he said through his sister-in-law, who interpreted.
This shortage has driven large meatpacking companies to increase wages and use sign-on bonuses to attract more workers.
“We're also accelerating investments in automation and advanced technologies to make existing roles safer and easier while reducing costs,” said Donnie King, the CEO and President of Tyson in a November quarterly update call with investors. “We're confident that our actions will increase Tyson staffing levels and position us for volume growth.”
Swenson, the economist at Iowa State, said government officials and meatpacking industry leaders need to start prioritizing worker health and safety.
“The overall economy cannot get well until the workforce is well,” he said. “And the workforce right now is still not well. To assume otherwise is silly.”
Amner Martinez said he thinks some meatpacking companies don’t understand just how important immigrant workers are to the industry. Immigrants are still some of the only people willing to do the tough work.
“They need to understand that immigrants are the ones that are going to save this shortage,” he said.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes Iowa Public Radio and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. This project was funded by USC’s Center for Health Journalism. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalie_krebs.