Agustín Rodriguez died in South Dakota, one of more than 640 people infected with COVID-19 connected to the Smithfield pork processing plant near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Like many other plant employees, he was a refugee who was willing to work long hours in a physically demanding job. They routinely put up with pain, icing sore wrists at night and living on ibuprofen, but glad to have jobs that let them support their families. Then came the coronavirus, sweeping through the ranks of workers cutting meat in close quarters without protective gear.
The New York Times interviewed many of the Smithfield workers, including Achut Deng, a refugee from Sudan who thought the virus could not be worse than what she had already survived:
“At 6 years of age, after her grandmother was killed in an attack on her village in Sudan, Ms. Deng walked to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. She was later resettled in Kenya and, eventually, in the United States. She has gone days without food and put on shoes for the first time when she was 14.
“But her bravado began to fade this month, when her fever rose to 103 degrees and she felt like something heavy was crushing her chest, preventing her from breathing. While her three young sons slept, she perched on the living room couch in her apartment, paid for by working 11-hour days at Smithfield, six times a week for nearly seven years. She was determined not to fall asleep because she feared she would not wake up.”
After Smithfield in Sioux Falls came the JBS meat packing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, where no COVID-19 cases were reported until late last week, when the number of positive tests quickly climbed to 19, with more expected.
Before either Sioux Falls or Worthington, Annie Grant died in Georgia on April 9. She was a 55-year-old mother and grandmother who worked at a Tyson poultry processing plant. She was the third worker from that plant to die of COVID-19.
“The coronavirus pandemic has reached the processing plants where workers typically stand elbow-to-elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting, deboning and packing the chicken and beef that Americans savor. Some plants have offered financial incentives to keep them on the job, but the virus’s swift spread is causing illness and forcing plants to close.”
A fourth worker has since died, but the plant remains open.
“One way the company is protecting its workers, [Hector Gonzalez, Tyson Foods senior vice president of human resources] said, is by relaxing its attendance policies to encourage workers to stay at home when they are sick.”
Annie Grant was ordered to continue working while sick. After four deaths, this Tyson plant is now “relaxing attendance policies” so that sick workers can stay home.
Other meat-packing plants are closing as the virus spreads through their work forces: a JBS plant in Pennsylvania, a Cargill plant in Pennsylvania, a Tyson plant in Iowa. A public health order closed a JBS beef packing plant in Colorado, after four worker deaths from the virus.
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906, describing the brutal and inhumane conditions of working in the meatpacking industry. The book provoked widespread anger and disgust, and led to reforms—to protect food safety.
“Sinclair later said that his readers had missed the point by focusing on the health risks created by unsanitary stockyards and meatpacking facilities rather than on the dehumanization of workers and the brutal treatment of animals.
“’I aimed at the public’s heart,’ he said, ‘and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’”
This time around, will we care half as much about worker safety, sickness, and death as we do about the availability of pork chops, chicken, and hamburger in the grocery store?