If you’ve never seen the inside of a packing plant, you should. Only then can you realize just how hard the people, who give us our daily supply of meat, work. Hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of workers stand next to one another on a massive production line dissecting animals in record time with the use of razor-sharp knives and various tools. The work is back-breaking and dangerous.
Conditions in packing plants have, historically, been notorious, dating back to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel “The Jungle,” which portrayed the harsh conditions of migrant packing plant workers in the Chicago packing industry.
Today's plants are, of course, nothing like the plants of "Jungle" days, but the way packing plant workers have been treated during the coronavirus pandemic is troubling.
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Report (reported in USA Today), as of May 20 at least 15,300 COVID-19 infections had occurred in 192 U.S. meat packing plants; at least 63 workers had died. These numbers do not, of course, reflect the number of family members infected.
If this was any other occupation or profession with these numbers of infected, I believe America would be outraged. In my view, our country treats meat packing plant workers as “disposables,” as if their lives and safety somehow are not as important as the rest of ours.
It wasn't hard to see this coming. Social isolation in a packing plant is an oxymoron. To make things worse, COVID-19 loves the cold. And with President Trump’s executive order requiring all plants to stay open, we were requiring these folks to work in what amounted to a COVID-19 petri dish. Nothing outside of “voluntary” efforts was done to protect these people by the federal government that demanded these plants stay open. Shameful.
The governors of our tri-state area could have filled the void and taken pro-active measures in their respective states to better protect workers, but didn't. Incredibly, they sometimes blamed the workers.
After discussing the closure in April of the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls as a result of infections of employees, Gov. Kristi Noem actually said, “99% of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility.” Who believes that? Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts also suggested a meat packing plant virus outbreak could happen because of crowded conditions in worker homes.
It took Iowa OSHA nine days to respond to a complaint in April the virus was spreading on the production floor at the Tyson plant in Perry, according to a May 18 story by The Associated Press. On May 5, one week after OSHA closed its file on the case - after determining company response was "satisfactory" and without inspecting the plant - the Iowa Department of Public Health announced 730 workers at the Perry plant, or 58% of the workforce, had tested positive for the coronavirus, AP reported. Governor Kim Reynolds said Iowa OSHA acted appropriately. Really? She also said workers who don’t show up for work out of fear of contracting coronavirus will be ineligible for unemployment benefits. How does that protect public safety?
I want to be clear. I point no fingers at any one specific company today. Rather, my views are focused on the industry as a whole - and, more specifically, on a lack of government action in the form of needed regulations - in our tri-state region and across the country. Also, full disclosure: As an attorney, I specialize in protection of worker rights, so this issue resonates with me.
In my view, the underlying problem here is that the meat packing industry is now, essentially, self-regulated; most OSHA inspections are complaint-based. And the Trump administration has made it worse - far less oversight and a green light to speed up production lines even more.
After touring meat packing plants across Nebraska earlier this year, University of Nebraska Medical Center public health and infection control experts discovered some progress has been made in certain areas, but not much in the area of social distancing and providing paid time off (after its study, the UNMC officials put together a playbook for plants to help curb spread of the virus). Of more than 600 packing plant workers surveyed by UNMC, only 39 percent said their plants had spaced out workers on the production line and in common areas such as cafeterias and locker rooms and only 29 percent said they were sure their employer offered additional paid time off or sick leave for workers who contracted the coronavirus.
Shutdown of meat packing plants this year due to the pandemic led to mask requirements and some plastic sheeting between workers, but more needs to be done. It would not take much effort to dramatically increase the safety in these plants and concurrently protect the public. Production lines should be slowed down to allow for these changes.
In my mind, it comes down to a very fundamental question: Who is the government supposed to protect?
Next week: Linda Holub
A Sioux City resident and local attorney, Al Sturgeon is a former Democratic state representative and senator. He is the father of six children.
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