Food Workers Need Protection

Watch John Oliver’s segment on meat processing workers on YouTube

Even in the best of times, meat-packing and poultry-processing workers face astronomically high risks of injury. Now COVID has made those industries much more dangerous, and government agencies charged with protecting workers have utterly failed them. 

Speed-ups on processing lines, long hours of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers, all wielding sharp knives, have long been a recipe for disaster. John Oliver’s show last Sunday dramatically highlighted these dangers. In less-salty language, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported in 2005

“The largest proportions of workers in the meat and poultry industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are young, male, and/or Hispanic. Although the majority of workers are citizens, an estimated 26 percent of them are foreign-born noncitizens. They work in hazardous conditions involving loud noise, sharp tools, and dangerous machinery. Many workers must stand for long periods of time wielding knives and hooks to slaughter or process meat on a production line that moves very quickly. Workers responsible for cleaning the plant must use strong chemicals and hot pressurized water. While, according to BLS, injuries and illnesses have declined over the past decade, the meat and poultry industry still has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry.” [emphasis added]

Over the past year, the impossibility of social distancing and lack of personal protective equipment made meat-packing and poultry-processing plants hotbeds of COVID-19 infection. By April 22, 2020, three plants had been forced to close due to COVID outbreaks (and deaths) among workers. Civil Eats reported back then: 

“The meat processing industry, where workers toil shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces, has been battered by the novel coronavirus in recent days. Multiple plants have closed after several thousand workers fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and a dozen have died—including three other workers at the JBS plant in Greeley, one at a Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, four at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia, two at another Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, one at another JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and one at the Smithfield  pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As of Wednesday, the Smithfield plant had become the country’s top COVID hotspot, with more than 640 cases linked to the plant.”

Despite the clear dangers, Trump ordered plants to reopen as essential industries. The effect was to force workers back into the plants, without offering protection. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, responsible for ensuring safety in workplaces, has issued only non-binding guidelines for COVID safety. Even if it had issued rules, OSHA is so understaffed that enforcement is sporadic and ineffective. The Trump administration repeatedly tried to slash OSHA funding, left senior positions vacant, and reduced the number of OSHA inspectors to the lowest level in more than 40 years. 

In March 2020, Kim Cordova wrote to OSHA to ask for inspection of the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, CO. Cordova, the president of UFCW Local 7, saw COVID running rampant through the plant, while workers were denied basic personal protective equipment or social distancing. The Intercept tells what happened next:

“A few days later, Cordova received a call from OSHA letting her know that help was not on the way. ‘He said they didn’t have the staff and they weren’t doing any on-site visits. They just didn’t have any direction,’ she recalled. ‘And I told them, people are going to die in this facility.’”

Workers, and their family members, began dying. 

“On May 14, OSHA finally sent an inspector to the beef plant. But according to Cordova, the visit was brief. ‘They did a quick walk-through, more like a run-through,’ she said. Although the union suggested that OSHA interview workers who had been sick with Covid-19, the inspectors declined to do so. ‘I understand that you can’t talk to the workers who are dead,’ Cordova said. ‘But what about the ones who almost died?’ 

The union filed a formal complaint against the company with OSHA. Eventually, OSHA agreed that the company had put workers’ lives at risk. JBS is the biggest meat processing company in the world. It had more than $50 billion in income in 2019. OSHA fined JBS $15,615—pocket change for a company that big. And JBS still refused to pay the fine. 

Even if they are not protected, workers injured on the job should be compensated. That’s what workers’ compensation laws are for. Workers who suffer health injuries on the job are entitled to workers’ compensation to pay for their medical care and lost wages. 

Despite 18,000 workers comp claims filed by Minnesota workers in all industries, only about half have been paid. Not a single one of the 935 claims by Minnesota meat-processing workers has been paid, according to the Star Tribune news report. 

Minnesota legislators gave essential workers an automatic presumption that COVID was contracted on the job, making them eligible for workers compensation. The legislature excluded meat-processing employees from that protection. 

A Star Tribune editorial noted that even the 935 claims filed seemed a suspiciously low number:

“A suspicious data spike raises questions about reporting lags or gaps by the industry. From April to June, there were a total of 46 meat processing workers’ comp claims filed with DLI. But after the agency communicated concerns about this to the industry last summer, July’s total rose to 878.

“Claims from these firms soon fell to a trickle again, with only 11 more reported through January 2021. For context, Minnesota saw its largest surge in COVID infections in late fall. COVID-related workers’ comp claims across all occupations also soared to their highest levels in November and December, according to the DLI report.”

While the plight of meat processing workers is truly awful, failure to protect workers extends to other industries as well. Essential workers lack protection. So do non-essential workers. The Trump administration did its worst to gut already-inadequate protections for workers across the country. The Biden administration needs to act—and act quickly—to restore and increase protection for workers. 

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