Investigations show pandemic’s harsh impact on meatpacking workers

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An investigation by a U.S. House subcommittee reveals the pandemic’s toll on employees at meatpacking plants is harsher than previously thought. The subcommittee started the investigation in February of this year. It looks at data from a majority of 2020, when the coronavirus made its way into the United States. The meatpacking companies mentioned in the report include JBS, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods. According to the findings of the report, 59,145 meatpacking workers were infected by the coronavirus and there were 269 deaths. That’s nearly triple the number provided by Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which estimated 22,694 workers had COVID-19. FERN also estimated 88 deaths due to COVID-19. FERN is said to have collected data from state and local health departments, news reports on coronavirus outbreaks, and meatpacking companies that reported on certain coronavirus outbreaks. The reports findings also found that there was a lack of mitigation guidance providence. Not every member of the subcommittee agreed.”In April and May (2020), we were already instituting in these meatpacking facilities in my district–they were already issuing mask mandates, temperature screening, testing, providing PPE,” said Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.However, the findings of the report don’t come as a surprise to people who have spent nearly two years trying to help meatpacking plant employees. Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz is a community organizer with the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice. He’s worked with meatpacking workers to help them navigate through difficulties through the pandemic and try to work with companies.”They did introduce barriers or maybe they introduced measures,” said Murguia-Ortiz. “Those changes that were made, it was largely too late by that time.” When it comes to the future, whether it’s against COVID-19 or another pandemic, Murguia-Ortiz says shutting down early may be ideal for plant workers. To avoid getting to that point, however, Murguia-Ortiz says conversations need to be had at the board level with more than just executives.”I can’t sit here and identify every single job and identify how it can be re-adjusted to continue the work,” Murguia-Ortiz said. “But I’m sure the workers know. I’m sure every single person on that line has an idea of what can make them safer.” Forward Latino has organized meat boycotts, spoken to workers at plants across the Midwest, provided resources and support to Latino community members and their families impacted by COVID-19. The organization has also recently been awarded a grant to increase vaccine awareness, education and access in Iowa counties with higher Latino populations. The organization sent KCCI a statement saying they will continue to help mitigate coronavirus impacts in communities, but there’s a need for accountability from corporations: We need slower lines, social distancing and proper safety equipment to keep these vulnerable workers safe. “We also need enforcement. I’m hearing (from workers) that conditions are not always safe enough – regardless of what Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and other Iowa companies claim.” -Joe Henry, Forward Latino National Vice President Companies say vaccines are playing a big role in protecting employees. Tyson Foods has a mandate, with over 96 percent of its workers nationwide vaccinated. JBS Foods shared its numbers with KCCI. While they don’t have a mask mandate, the company is seeing high numbers in its Iowa plants: Marshalltown has nearly 90% vaccinated, Ottumwa has more than 85% vaccinated, and Council Bluffs has nearly 85% vaccinated.

An investigation by a U.S. House subcommittee reveals the pandemic’s toll on employees at meatpacking plants is harsher than previously thought.

The subcommittee started the investigation in February of this year. It looks at data from a majority of 2020, when the coronavirus made its way into the United States. The meatpacking companies mentioned in the report include JBS, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods.

According to the findings of the report, 59,145 meatpacking workers were infected by the coronavirus and there were 269 deaths. That’s nearly triple the number provided by Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which estimated 22,694 workers had COVID-19. FERN also estimated 88 deaths due to COVID-19.

FERN is said to have collected data from state and local health departments, news reports on coronavirus outbreaks, and meatpacking companies that reported on certain coronavirus outbreaks.

The reports findings also found that there was a lack of mitigation guidance providence. Not every member of the subcommittee agreed.

“In April and May (2020), we were already instituting in these meatpacking facilities in my district–they were already issuing mask mandates, temperature screening, testing, providing PPE,” said Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

However, the findings of the report don’t come as a surprise to people who have spent nearly two years trying to help meatpacking plant employees.

Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz is a community organizer with the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice. He’s worked with meatpacking workers to help them navigate through difficulties through the pandemic and try to work with companies.

“They did introduce barriers or maybe they introduced measures,” said Murguia-Ortiz. “Those changes that were made, it was largely too late by that time.”

When it comes to the future, whether it’s against COVID-19 or another pandemic, Murguia-Ortiz says shutting down early may be ideal for plant workers.

To avoid getting to that point, however, Murguia-Ortiz says conversations need to be had at the board level with more than just executives.

“I can’t sit here and identify every single job and identify how it can be re-adjusted to continue the work,” Murguia-Ortiz said. “But I’m sure the workers know. I’m sure every single person on that line has an idea of what can make them safer.”

Forward Latino has organized meat boycotts, spoken to workers at plants across the Midwest, provided resources and support to Latino community members and their families impacted by COVID-19. The organization has also recently been awarded a grant to increase vaccine awareness, education and access in Iowa counties with higher Latino populations.

The organization sent KCCI a statement saying they will continue to help mitigate coronavirus impacts in communities, but there’s a need for accountability from corporations:

We need slower lines, social distancing and proper safety equipment to keep these vulnerable workers safe. “We also need enforcement. I’m hearing (from workers) that conditions are not always safe enough – regardless of what Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and other Iowa companies claim.” –Joe Henry, Forward Latino National Vice President

Companies say vaccines are playing a big role in protecting employees. Tyson Foods has a mandate, with over 96 percent of its workers nationwide vaccinated.

JBS Foods shared its numbers with KCCI. While they don’t have a mask mandate, the company is seeing high numbers in its Iowa plants: Marshalltown has nearly 90% vaccinated, Ottumwa has more than 85% vaccinated, and Council Bluffs has nearly 85% vaccinated.



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