By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director
Many years before the coronavirus pandemic, there were concerns that meat plant workers were at high risk of contracting contagious diseases – concerns that have only ramped up in recent months. For one, meat plants are cold, which increases the risk of transmission. Masks are the obvious protection, but the physical demands and messiness of the work can make masks difficult to wear or ineffective. Additionally, workers usually stand shoulder to shoulder, making it nearly impossible to comply with social distancing guidelines. This isn’t helped by the fact that the plants typically do not offer paid sick leave, which left some workers with the choice to either go to work sick or lose several weeks of income – or even their jobs. In some instances, plants actually offered bonuses to employees who didn’t miss work. Because meat plant employees make just $13.59 per hour on average, such incentives may be hard to turn down.
These predictions were quickly borne out. In late March, workers started getting sick. Within a month, more than a dozen plants had shut down or slowed production due to outbreaks among employees, decreasing beef and pork slaughtering capacity by 10 and 25 percent, respectively. As a result, farmers were stranded with nowhere to process their animals while consumers faced higher prices and meat shortages at grocery stores.
In response, the Trump administration issued an executive order compelling meat processing facilities to continue operating through the pandemic. While closed meat plants were certainly problematic for farmers and consumers, the order ignored the underlying issues that made workers so vulnerable to covid-19.
Many facilities have implemented voluntary measures, such as personal protective equipment and plastic barriers between workers, which may have slowed the transmission. Even so, meat plant workers have continued to get sick at an alarming rate. Since March, nearly half of all meat processing and slaughter facilities have reported at least one case of coronavirus, and nearly 43,000 – or one in every eight – workers have tested positive. Individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color have been disproportionately affected, by some estimates accounting for 87 percent of cases.
Despite meat plant workers’ demonstrated susceptibility to coronavirus, the federal government has done very little to protect them. To date, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not implemented any enforceable safety regulations to protect workers. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is moving to increase the maximum speeds of poultry processing lines, which would force workers to stand even closer together.
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