Meatpacking has long been dangerous, grueling work. Then COVID-19 hit.

Tyson Foods, which has seen outbreaks at several plants, has installed workstation dividers at its facilities. Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

WORTHINGTON — Meatpacking has long been one of the most dangerous jobs in America —  well before COVID-19 hit. 

Since the virus began worming its way into rural communities and the meatpacking industry just weeks ago, the novel coronavirus has raced through the cramped production lines, locker rooms and cafeterias of 115 meat and poultry processing plants in 19 states, sickening nearly 5,000 workers and killing 20 by April 27, according to a May 1 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The quick spread of the disease at meatpacking plants came as no surprise to occupational safety experts and worker advocates who have long documented the dangerous and grueling nature of slaughtering and butchering livestock. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder on production lines, spending just seconds on a carcass or cut of meat. At some plants, upwards of 1,000 hogs are processed every hour. 

Workers are clad in protective gear like metal aprons, wielding sharp knives or operating industrial saws as they quickly break down livestock for market. “It’s fast. It’s loud. It’s dangerous,” said UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht, who represents 1,850 workers at the JBS plant here. “It’s a brutal way to make a living.”

The pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on an industry that employs roughly 500,000 workers nationwide, many of them immigrants and refugees who toil in difficult conditions for modest wages — largely out of sight in rural communities.

A JBS employee who recently recovered from COVID-19 lamented the invisibility that comes with her work. “People don’t understand that behind that small package of meat, there is a whole production and entire community,” said the woman, originally from El Salvador. She and a half dozen JBS workers spoke with the Reformer on condition they not be named, fearing retaliation for speaking out about working conditions.

Experts say that despite decades of technological advances in food manufacturing technology, one aspect of the industry’s practices has remained unchanged for most of the past century: relatively inexpensive labor, and lots of it. 

“The way in which we process meat and the systems that we use hasn’t changed since really the time the poor conditions were first written about in The Jungle in 1906,” said Melissa J. Perry, a George Washington University occupational health professor who spent seven years documenting injury rates in pork packing plants in Nebraska and Iowa.  

“We still largely rely on human labor and not on automation or mechanization in order to get meat processed,” Perry said. “It means many workers working at line pace, dependent on line speed to process a large amount of meat every day on a daily basis.”

Meatpacking plants are highly dangerous workplaces where employees commonly experience injuries like lacerations and repetitive stress ailments. The incidence rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses for meatpacking workers was 5.4 per 100 full-time workers in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perry published a series of reports on lacerations among pork packing plant employees and calculated just how little time line workers had to do their jobs. “They had four seconds to cut, to slice, to interact with the carcass or the slice of meat that they were working with before the piece moved on and another one came along,” Perry said. 

The JBS pork packing plant in Worthington temporarily closed amid a COVID-19 outbreak that has sickened nearly 550 workers. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

In Minnesota, a COVID-19 outbreak erupted with similar rapidity at the JBS Worthington pork packing plant on April 20, launching a massive testing operation by state health officials that eventually detected COVID-19 in nearly 550 workers at the 2,000-worker plant. 

JBS in Worthington is just one of a handful of the state’s dozen meat and poultry processing plants that have seen outbreaks. Others include Jennie-O, which was forced to temporarily close two plants in Willmar.

In interviews, JBS employees said that the implementation of safety measures at many of their jobs came too late. The installation of plexiglass dividers and increased sanitation efforts would have done little to stem contagion anyway, some said. Line speeds continued at their usual breakneck speeds, making it impossible for workers to keep any distance from each other. 

One worker said in an interview that she informed her supervisor that she had spent hours working alongside a fellow employee who later tested positive for COVID-19. She asked whether she should stay for work and was told to stay because she was not currently experiencing symptoms. She stayed for her shift, unwilling to risk earning disciplinary points for missing work. The accumulation of points can result in dismissal.

Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman, said in a statement to the Reformer said it had coordinated its May 6 reopening with local, state and federal officials, as well as UFCW Local 663, the union representing employees at JBS. Bruett also pointed to the safety and screening measures that have been implemented. 

“We expect operations to normalize over time as absenteeism rates decline in response to the preventive measures in place at the facility and as team members clear any necessary quarantine protocols,” he said. 

The U.S. General Accountability Office said in 2017 that workers in meat and poultry plants reported strong pressure and fear of retaliation if they complained about issues like the lack of bathroom breaks, leading to a recommendation that occupational safety inspectors conduct worker interviews off-site so workers feel comfortable speaking freely.

In Missouri, Smithfield Foods faces a lawsuit from pork packing plant employees who say they have for years endured repetitive stress injuries and urinary tract infections because of lack of bathroom access. 

But experts like Perry and David Michaels, a fellow George Washington University occupational health professor, also point to another regulatory issue that could have been critical amid an influenza pandemic.

Michaels this month wrote in The Atlantic about the administration of President Donald Trump shelving a rule the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began developing after the 2010 H1N1 pandemic. The regulations would have created a standard to protect workers like meatpacking employees and others exposed to airborne infectious diseases. 

“An OSHA standard would provide much-needed guidance, and the prospect of inspections and civil penalties would no doubt motivate some employers to do the right thing,” Michaels said. “Such a standard would, in essence, make following CDC guidance an enforceable requirement.”

OSHA as recently as 2016 worked toward developing the standard, which would have outlined employers’ responsibilities to distribute masks and other protective equipment, as well as provide worker training to prevent infectious disease. Work on the rule halted in 2017 amid the widespread deregulation of industries by the Trump administration.

ETHICAL PRODUCTION OF MEAT HAS COSTS

The sudden bulk purchases of personal protective equipment, masks and plexiglass barriers is expected to add millions in production costs. The public health response to the outbreak in the plants also carries mounting costs to taxpayers, including testing, the deployment of contact tracers and a comprehensive response by local and state health officials working to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

“It’s expensive to live this cheaply,” Perry said. “If we’re not willing to invest, and if we’re insisting on going on the cheap and refusing to invest in the adequate protection and the equipment and the materials needed to prevent outbreaks in food processing, then ultimately, we all pay for the health consequences.”

Though largely unseen, the American meat industry requires a vast ecosystem of workers, including trimmers, inspectors, forklift operators and supervisors. The median wage for slaughterers in southwestern Minnesota is $14.75, or an annual salary of less than $31,000.

Tyson Foods has provided personal protective equipment for its workers. Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

In the past month, scores of plants across the country shuttered temporarily, cutting meat supply processing capacity by up to 40% compared with a year ago, causing the price of beef and pork to spike to record highs. Resulting shortages drove retailers like Costco to limit meat purchases, and fast-food chain Wendy’s ran out of beef at some locations. 

Jayson Lusk, head of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, said the meatpacking industry was particularly vulnerable to economic shocks because of widespread consolidation that has concentrated meat production in just a few gigantic operations. Fifteen plants account for roughly 60% of the country’s pork supply, while 10 plants process about 60% of American beef, Lusk said.   

“Each of these plants are big — big enough that if they go down, they have aggregate impacts given their size,” Lusk said. “In good times, that size is to our advantage because there are economies of scale and they’re able to process meat very affordably for consumers.”

With the pandemic expected to last months, Lusk said it’s unclear when meat and poultry production will return to normal given the reliance on human labor. 

“The plants are trying to get back up and running, but you still have to get the workers to show up, and that’s a challenge,” he said. “Even if you’re back up and running, you’re probably not running at 100% capacity because you’re distancing out workers in the plant, so that’ll be a challenge too.”

JBS WORKERS FEAR FOR THEIR HEALTH, LIVES

Worthington has emerged as one of Minnesota’s most diverse communities in recent years, with a long-established population of refugees and immigrants who have set down roots and have strong family ties. Nobles County, home to 21,000 Minnesotans, has found itself as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in rural Minnesota, with 1,269 lab-confirmed cases.

Minnesota health officials last week highlighted the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Minnesotans of color, particularly Latino and Black residents who are seeing greater rates of infection and hospitalization compared with their white counterparts. People of color are more likely to work in essential jobs like cleaning services — and meatpacking plant lines.   

Nine in 10 Nobles County jobs are considered “essential,” spanning a range of occupations like meat trimmers, slaughters and packagers, including ancillary food processing jobs, like cleaning staff, shipping clerks and sales representatives, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The statewide rate of essential jobs is 81%. 

The JBS plant also employs families, including a 23-year-old woman from El Salvador, a JBS employee who has worked at the plant for 6 years.

“Latinos are dying in disproportionate numbers,” said the woman, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak with the media. “If we’re important, why don’t they value us?”

She worries about the older residents of the community, including her mother-in-law, a cancer survivor, who may come into contact with a JBS worker. “The plant can be clean and sanitized, but the virus isn’t in the plant,” she said. “We are the carriers. If this plant reopens, there will be other infections.”

For weeks leading up to the plant’s closure, JBS workers endured anxiety as they demanded more information and transparency from plant leaders about their plans to safeguard workers from an outbreak. 

One JBS employee, who, along with his wife tested positive COVID-19, blasted the company, saying it acted too late to safeguard workers. 

“Let’s say I go back to work, and I catch it again?” said the man, an East African refugee who was recovering from COVID-19 and coughing in an interview. 

The World Health Organization said April 24 there is currently no evidence to believe someone who has recovered from COVID-19 cannot become infected a second time.

Some workers also said United Food and Commercial Workers union leaders were not responsive to their safety concerns until the scope of the outbreak became clear. UFCW Local 663’s Utecht called the criticism “unfair.” 

Utecht pointed to a number of measures the union advocated for on behalf of workers, including $4 per hour in new hazard pay. He has been in frequent communication with state officials advocating on behalf of union members, including calling for production lines to be slowed to allow for social distancing. 

“For the past five or six weeks since COVID first struck the shores of our country, it didn’t come with a roadmap or instructions on how you deal with a worldwide pandemic,” Utecht said. 

The frustrations of JBS plant workers boiled over in Worthington last month in a cacophony of car horns.

Workers heckled a press conference featuring a largely white delegation of Minnesota leaders at the Worthington Municipal Airport hangar. 

Led by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and Gov. Tim Walz, the officials outlined their plan to assist hog farmers, who suddenly found themselves needing to euthanize their animals during the temporary closure of the JBS plant.

“What about us?” read signs by workers and their families. Walz later spoke with workers to hear from them directly. 

The Salvadoran woman who has worked at JBS since 2014 said she is likely to leave her job at her earliest opportunity. She worried what would happen if her older relatives contracted the virus, given her age.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.