The pandemic is sweeping through the nation’s meat processing industry. Infected workers have been reported in South Dakots, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Kansas, Colorado, Georgia, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. A major share of the country’s poultry, beef and pork product production is shutting down.
Meat processing workers, half or more of whom are foreign-born, work side by side. Labor advocates say that they have not seen any plant undertake as yet safe practices related to the pandemic.
I have followed the situation in Iowa, there the apparently first verified case of an infected meat processing worker showed up three weeks ago in Marshalltown, where a JBS (formerly Swift) plant employs about 2,000 persons. As of today. JBS has shut down plants in Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Smithfield has shut down plants in at least South Dakota, Missouri and Wisconsin.
The first plant in Iowa to shut down was Tyson’s plant in Columbus Junction, where over one hundred workers were diagnosed with the virus and two died.
I spoke with several people in Iowa, including Mark Cooper, Rafael Morataya and Joe Enriquez Henry, president of the Des Moines chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Within 250 miles of Des Moines are plants that produce 70% of the country’s pork products. Henry estimates that three quarters of the workers in these plants are foreign born. Most are from Latin America, but they also include Africans and Asians.
Henry says that OHSA did not respond to three letters, the first one sent three weeks ago. A letter signed by 66 organizations was sent to Governor Kim Reynolds on April 15.
Henry estimates that three or four Iowa plants were closed as of April 20. He says that safety protections are straightforward – space the workers out, and slow down the pace to enable workers to work eight hours with masks on.
Photo: Earl Dotter