At Least 269 Workers in US Meatpacking Industry Died in First Year of Pandemic

At least 59,000 workers at the nation’s five largest meatpackers were infected with COVID-19 and at least 269 died during the first year of the pandemic, a new investigationAccording to the House Select Subcommittee of the Coronavirus Crisis, this is what they found. That’s almost three times the number of both infections and deaths known from previous estimates based on publicly available data collected byThe Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).

Because the data provided to the subcommittee by companies does not include cases found in off-site testing, or self-reported by employees, the actual number of COVID deaths and cases among workers in these facilities was likely higher.

Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, Arkansas, reported the most worker cases — 29,462 — and deaths — 151 — of the five companies. JBS (12.859 employee infected and 62 deaths), Smithfield (9.666 infections, 25 deaths), Cargill (4.690 infections, 25 deaths), National Beef (2.470 infections, and six deaths) are the other three. The subcommittee pointed out that the true extent of the deaths and infections at these companies was likely to be much greater because the data provided to investigators often excluded cases that were confirmed by offsite testing, or reported by employees. Tyson did not respond when asked.

“It’s shocking for people to realize that companies don’t have to report to anyone how many of their workers tested positive for COVID, or how many workers in their plants died of COVID,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior Occupational Safety and Health Administration official under President Obama, told South facing.

The subcommittee discovered that the number of infections was particularly high at certain plants. This included a Tyson plant near Amarillo in Texas where 49.8% of workers contracted the virus. A memo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Texas health authorities to Tyson obtained by the subcommittee said that workers at the plant were wearing masks “saturated” with sweat and were separated by only “plastic bags on frames.” The report also said that OSHA staff told the subcommittee that the agency’s decision not to issue a regulatory standard on protective measures for workers was a “political decision.”

Workers and their families raised concerns about the lack of safety measures in poultry farms almost immediately after the pandemic started. reporting by Facing SouthOther outlets have been documented. But, the subcommittee report noted, company executives and even the government spent months claiming that plants weren’t a source of infection — and blaming outbreaks in their workforce on “community spread.” The meat and poultry processing workforce is largely composed of non-white workers, and the industry heavily relies on immigrant labour. Arkansas as Facing South reported, two mayors worked with Tyson to tout safety measures inside the company’s plants and claim that the virus’s spread was mostly due to community behavior.

However, the subcommittee data showed that meatpacking workers have been experiencing fewer infections since companies started to implement safety measures. “For example, Tyson’s monthly employee infections from its 15 facilities with the highest aggregate team member positive case counts have decreased from counts as high as 1,672 in April 2020 and 1,242 in March 2020 to counts as low as ten and seven in July 2020,” the report states.

The report confirmed what workers and advocates had been claiming all along, said Magaly Licolli, the co-founder of Arkansas workers’ justice group Venceremos. “It was not shocking,” she said.

Berkowitz and Licolli testified at the Oct. 27 hearing of the subcommittee on the report. Martin Rosas, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 2 (Kansas), and Rose Godinez (interim legal director of ACLU of Nebraska and the child of former meatpacking workers) were also present. The subcommittee includes three Southern representatives: Jim Clyburn (South Carolina Democrat), and Mark Green (Republicans from Tennessee and Louisiana). They represent no state that is among the top five in meat or poultry processing per number of workers.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, a physician, was the subcommittee’s only Republican member to use their speaking time to address the substance of the report. Scalise, the ranking member, spent his time calling for a hearing into the origins of COVID-19 and talking about inflation and the Biden administration’s economic policies, as did the remaining Republicans.

“They were purposely, obviously trying to deviate from the subject, to not pay attention to it,” Licolli told South facing.

In her testimony, Licolli recalled the early days of the pandemic, when she said she was “receiving many daily calls from workers, letting me know how terrified they were to see how fast their co-workers were getting infected with COVID.” The subcommittee’s report did not break down cases and deaths by state, but incomplete FERN data collected through Sept. 2 shows nearly 7,000 cases and more than 20 deaths in Arkansas meat and poultry processing plants.

Three testimony submitted by Tyson workers in Arkansas under pseudonyms to the committee recalled the effects of being exposed to COVID while on the job. “My life has changed completely after I contracted COVID,” wroteFormer Tyson mechanic, who claims that he contracted COVID while working at the plant. “I currently only have 45% of my lung capacity. I lost my job and I’m unable to find other jobs because of my health condition.”

Another worker at Tyson’s plant in Green Forest, Arkansas, wrote that the dividers installed by the company didn’t do much to protect workers. “The reality was that we were still working shoulder to shoulder. Our head came out of those dividers to be able to process chicken properly,” she wrote. She said she contracted COVID from her husband and went to work despite being symptomatic because she was afraid of being fired. Her husband, who also died from the disease, was also affected.

Witnesses called on the federal and state governments to make policy changes to protect workers and give employees more options to combat unsafe working conditions.

“We really need to look at passing state laws that give workers a way to take employers into court when they just willfully decide that they’re not going to protect workers,” said Berkowitz. “There needs to be better protection in state laws, and federal laws, from retaliation for workers who speak up.”

A major focus of the report was OSHA’s absence during the pandemic, from conducting inspections to levying fines. The agency did not issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for meatpacking plants, which the report says OSHA staff called a “political decision.” Such a standard would have required companies to take specific steps to protect workers and given OSHA greater enforcement power. The agency issued nine citations to nine meatpacking plant owners in 2020, despite the fact that thousands of meatpacking workers had been sickened and hundreds had died. During that time, the agency received hundreds upon hundreds of complaints.

“OSHA under Trump was really hollowed out, was sort of shut down,” said Berkowitz. “And it’s going to take a while to turn the agency back on.” She called for major budget increases to the agency that would allow it to rebuild.

“We need OSHA more than ever to function as it should be functioning,” said Licolli.