The Potluck

Report: COVID cases, deaths at packing plants were triple previous counts

By: - October 29, 2021 1:27 pm

Workers in a pork processing plant, 2016. Photo courtesy of U.S. General Accountability Office.

The numbers of meatpacking workers infected and killed by the coronavirus are much higher than previously known, a congressional review has found.

More than 59,000 workers of the country’s five largest meatpackers were infected, and about 270 died, according to a report by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that was made public Wednesday.

That’s about triple the previous estimates.

“Until now, we have not had a full sense of how hard meatpacker workers were hit,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the chairman of the subcommittee.

Virus outbreaks at packing plants were early drivers of infections in Iowa, including in the cities of Columbus Junction, Perry, Storm Lake, Tama, Waterloo, and Dakota City, Nebraska, which was believed to be the source of surging infections across the river in Sioux City in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers at the plants — which former President Donald Trump deemed critical infrastructure that were required to keep operating — were highly susceptible to infection because they often operate in close proximity to each other.

Previous estimates of how many of the workers were infected and died were tallied by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The House subcommittee calculated its totals by surveying Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and National Beef.

“Meatpacking companies were too slow to respond to worker demands for safer conditions,” Clyburn said during a hearing on Wednesday. “While workers fought for greater protections, the large meatpacking conglomerates focused on protecting their profits.”

Martin Rosas, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2, which represents 1.3 million workers in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, testified that meatpacking plants failed to implement safety measures such as masks, dividers and social distancing to stop the spread of the virus until unions demanded them, and that some plants dropped those precautions prematurely.

“These workers were living in fear,” Rosas said. “They did not know whether these companies were willing to protect them, but they were also afraid to miss work because they didn’t have sufficient leave benefits.”

Meatpackers respond

Tyson Foods told Iowa Capital Dispatch it spent more than $810 million “to address COVID-19.”

“We’ve provided personal protective equipment, transformed our plants to support social distancing, offered additional benefits to team members and hired more medical staff, among other initiatives,” according to statement provided by Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesperson. “During the height of the pandemic, we led the nation with our COVID-19 testing efforts, likely testing more people than anyone in the country, and, once vaccines became available, we have done more than any company in the industry to vaccinate our workforce.”

On Tuesday, the company announced that more than 96% of its workers are vaccinated against the coronavirus. The company is requiring its workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Smithfield Foods told Iowa Capital Dispatch it worked quickly to comply with recommendations from public health officials.

“Smithfield moved immediately in the earliest days of the pandemic — even before any direction from health officials — to implement worker safety measures,” said Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield. “Smithfield, like other members of the meatpacking industry, tested its workers frequently, uncovering even asymptomatic cases that would not have otherwise been detected in the wider community.”

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, is a subcommittee member who defended the companies’ response to the pandemic. She said she personally verified that a plant in her hometown of Ottumwa had implemented a variety of safety precautions in April and May 2020.

“Let’s not forget that even experts like Dr. Fauci didn’t know what was going on in those early months, and guidance was changing daily,” she said Wednesday, in reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.

Outbreaks and subsequent deaths at meatpacking plants in Iowa spawned lawsuits against the companies, including one that claims supervisors at a Tyson plant in Waterloo made bets about how many of their workers would be infected.

Rose Godinez, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, testified Wednesday that packing plant workers who are in the country illegally were especially susceptible to unhealthy work conditions because they are reluctant to speak out for fear of being deported.

“You don’t see them (here) today because they aren’t U.S. citizens,” she said.

Godinez asked lawmakers to slow production line speeds, increase oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reform immigration law to help meatpacking plant workers.

“The outbreaks spread so quickly that the companies such as Tyson lost much of their workforce,” testified Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos, which advocates for poultry plant workers. “Their response was to increase line speeds to maintain production levels, cramming workers even more closely together and making conditions more dangerous.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Iowa Capital Dispatch senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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