NewsHealth / May 27, 2020

You Asked: How Is COVID Affecting Meat Processing Workers?

Article origination WFYI-FM
You Asked: How Is COVID Affecting Meat Processing Workers?

Triumph Foods Chief Operating Officer Frank Papenberg shows Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue around the St. Joseph facility in April of 2017.

Preston Keres/ U.S. Department of Agriculture
BRITTANI HOWELL

Outbreaks at meat processing facilities have sickened workers and stalled production throughout the Midwest. Side Effects reporters Natalie Krebs (Iowa Public Radio) and Sebastián Martínez Valdivia (KBIA, Missouri), and Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Liam Niemeyer (WKMS, Kentucky) joined engagement specialist Brittani Howell on Facebook Live to talk about how the story has unfolded in their states. 

Here's a recap of the conversation. 

When thinking of “why” these outbreaks have gotten so bad in these facilities, it’s important to talk about the layout and the working conditions. These are pretty close quarters, right? Can you describe the physical conditions in which these workers work, and how that might be conducive to the spread of the virus?

Reports of cases at meat processing facilities began cropping up in mid to late April, “and since then it’s really been a series of bursts in cases,” Valdivia said.

And while conditions may vary from plant to plant, there are some factors that seem consistent among plants across several states: Many employees work at close quarters and at high speeds on the meat packing lines, and have few breaks in which they can go to the bathroom to wash their hands. During break times or shift changes, workers still find it difficult to reach six feet of distance from their fellow employees.

In many cases, the facilities are not built to accommodate social distancing.

“Considering that the virus spreads so easily from close contact, it just makes it the ideal condition to pass it on, especially as there are hundreds of people working in these plants,” Krebs said.

So what have these facilities done to try to mitigate the virus spread? 

Many are implementing a mix of several different strategies, such as putting up plastic barriers between workers who stand close together on the line, handing out masks or taking workers’ temperatures at the door. Some facilities are staggering breaks to reduce the number of people in the hallways and the break rooms, or even setting up additional break spaces like tents outside the building.

Some facilities have been slow to respond. Workers at the Smithfield Foods plant in Milan, Missouri, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the plant of operating “in a manner that contributes” to the spread of the coronavirus. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out – but shortly after it was filed, the plant began to make changes.

“Smithfield said this wasn’t in response to the lawsuit, but these were things workers had been asking for since the end of March, and they suddenly happened after the lawsuit was filed,” said Valdivia, who has been covering the lawsuit for KBIA.

But as far as mitigating strategies go, “it’s very piecemeal. It’s not like every plant is following the exact same guidelines in the exact same way.”

What challenges have you encountered in the reporting of these stories? It sounds like the plants aren’t being forthcoming about the numbers of cases in their facilities.

For the most part, the meat processing facilities in the reporters’ coverage areas have been communicating through statements rather than interviews. In the case of the Triumph Foods plant in Milan, Missouri, Valdivia hasn’t received even that much – at least, not from the plant itself. 

“The only statements I’ve been able to get are statements that workers at the plant have forwarded to me, that they’ve gotten internally,” Valdivia said. “Any time I’ve sent an email to their press person, I get no response.”

Luckily, Niemeyer said, the state of Kentucky has been forthcoming with meat processing plant-related numbers through its health department. Missouri has been less so, and Valdivia has had to do some detective work in order to piece together what’s happening.

To get a grasp of Missouri’s plant-related outbreaks, Valdivia started by identifying the counties with the biggest meat processing facilities in the state. When county cases spiked, he reached out to local health departments and asked them to estimate how many were connected to the meat processing plant.

In Iowa, a plant is considered to have an outbreak if 10% of its workforce has COVID-like symptoms or tests positive for the virus. Plants have to report their outbreak status to the state, but if their numbers fall below that threshold, it can be hard for journalists to confirm how many cases they have.

And it’s not always straightforward with the plants that do have to report their numbers. Iowa state officials reported in early May 444 employees at a Tyson plant in Black Hawk County had tested positive for the virus. County officials, however, said that number was 1,031 workers – a number that included more kinds of testing than the state did, according to reporting by Iowa Public Radio’s Kate Payne. 

What does President Donald Trump’s executive order about meat processing facilities mean for the way these facilities operate?

The prevailing impression is that the executive order outright banned plants from closing – but that’s not accurate, Valdivia said.

“The way that it’s reported or properly understood doesn’t necessarily line up with the text of the document,” Valdivia said. 

Essentially, the executive order delegates decision-making power to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Perdue sent letters to governors of states with large meat processing industries laying out the expectation that plants had to keep operating in order to keep the food supply chain going, Niemeyer said.

“It implied, it indicated, that state and local health officials wouldn’t have that ability, that authority would be given to the federal government. It’s unclear, in terms of what state and local health officials can do if these outbreaks linger or resurface,” Niemeyer said.

Many of these plants are located in rural areas, which often have limited health resources. What kind of a toll does an outbreak of this size take on a rural health department?

The problem of resources goes beyond ventilators and hospital beds, Valdivia said. 

“A key part of this and keeping track of this is contact tracing,” he said. “A lot of these rural health depts will have five workers, six workers on staff, but they’ll have to contact-trace hundreds of people, which is very work-intensive.”

It’s why you’re seeing calls for volunteers to help out with contact tracing, and requests for more money to fund the work.

Meat packing facilities across the US have a lot of immigrants and refugees in their workforce. What difficulties do these communities experience in connection with the virus in their workplace?

Immigrants and refugees have long been attracted to meat processing facilities because of the relatively high wages and the fact that the work doesn’t require English proficiency. But that language barrier has been particularly challenging for workers during the pandemic. 

“It’s been really hard to get them information,” Krebs said.

That difficulty is compounded by the sheer number of different cultures, and languages, represented among the workers: Central Africa, Central America, Micronesia, the South Pacific, Cuba and Tibet, to name just a few in the reporters’ coverage areas. 

Outside the plants, some resources do exist for non-English speakers. The Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa has a hotline that can connect callers with translators or resources for a number of different languages, and it has become a big resource for coronavirus questions, Krebs said. Some of those questions are as simple as “How can I call in sick to work?” and “What symptoms should I look for?”

The language barrier also isn’t the only hurdle.

“In these rural areas when you don’t have a lot of access to healthcare, and you have restrictive sick leave policies--which a lot of these processing plants have--you have a lot of room for chronic illnesses to pop up that aren’t treated because people can’t take the time off work to get them treated,” Valdivia said. “So then you have a more vulnerable population. We’ve seen comorbidities and underlying conditions are a huge risk factor when it comes to COVID, so that’s another thing that kind of makes these communities more at risk.”

Many of your stories, or your station’s stories, have included anonymous sources speaking from within the plants. For audience members who might have questions about that, could you talk about how you decide when to let a source stay anonymous? Why might someone want to stay anonymous in this situation? 

In this case, Valdivia said, his station has been allowing anonymous sources when talking to the press could have a substantive impact on their livelihood.

“That’s a major fear for people who work at these plants. Because they control information so tightly, there’s a big fear of reprisals and of people losing their jobs if they talk to the press,” he said.

Because the meat-processing facilities are so tight-lipped in communicating to journalists, an anonymous source might be the only opposing viewpoint to the narrative companies put forward, Krebs said.

But that doesn’t mean journalists don’t verify their source’s claims. One tactic Valdivia uses is asking sources to send him a photo of their work ID.

“So that’s information that I have and I can confirm, with the guarantee that I won’t share that,” he says.

And some speak up despite the fears of retaliation. Niemeyer recently spoke to a plant worker who was the sole breadwinner for her home during a time of great economic uncertainty.

“For her to speak to me as a member of the press when other people decided not to out of fear of reprisal, that took a lot of courage for her to do, given her household, she’s the only income,” he said. 

Indiana Public Broadcasting, Side Effects and WFYI are asking Americans about health issues, as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative. To contact us directly with a question, email health@wfyi.org.

America Amplified: Election 2020 is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. America Amplified is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. Follow the initiative on Twitter at @amplified2020.

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