Until the 1970s, the meatpacking industry was home to a highly skilled workforce in which many employees were essentially butchers who broke down an entire animal, Rehm said. The introduction of the cutting line created a system of repetitive actions in which workers focused much more on speed and production, often making workplaces less safe. The plants also began to attract a workforce of immigrants who often feel powerless to demand safety improvements or report injuries or illnesses, Rehm said.
“It leads to the conditions where you have people on the margins who do hard physical work and don’t get paid a lot,” he said.
“It’s a significant portion of the packing plants that are made up of immigrant labor, and the companies damn well know it.”
Threat of airborne disease ignored
As early as 2009, federal public health officials began to consider the idea that an airborne virus could wreak havoc inside essential workplaces such as hospitals, police departments and food-processors. That spring, a new strain of influenza known as H1N1, or swine flu swept the planet, causing the first flu pandemic in more than 40 years, according to the CDC.
The swine flu actually affected people under the age of 65 more strongly because they had never been exposed to a similar virus. Schools considered precautionary closures and the CDC warned that as much as 40% of the American workforce could be sidelined due to the illness.
By November of 2009, a vaccine for the swine flu was in circulation and the pandemic was declared over in August 2010.
While large scale economic shutdowns were avoided during the swine flu pandemic, public health officials in the U.S. treated the incident as a warning for pandemics to come and began developing new ways to handle the spread of airborne viruses. Among those efforts was a push at OSHA to develop rules aimed at preventing the spread of airborne disease and potential shutdowns at critical industries, such as healthcare and food production. The airborne pathogen standard was close to being finalized in 2016, Perry said, but the rules were killed and never revisited.
The CDC did create some pandemic flu-focused guides for employers, the latest versions of which were published in 2017. The CDC guidance includes such advice as encouraging sick workers to stay home, creating a plan to keep workers at least three feet apart and creating a plan to allow workers to stay home longer if they get sick or need to take care of sick family members. While the focus of the CDC guidance is on a flu pandemic, the principles apply to any airborne virus.
Guidelines, though, don’t obligate employers to do anything, and when it comes to the meatpacking industry, they largely didn’t, until COVID-19 started killing workers.
“Most companies just had general workplace policies in place for the health and safety of their workers,” Young said. “People that work in the meat processing industry are given personal protective equipment to wear depending on the job they are performing but those usually do not include face masks.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office signaled in a study in 2005 that meatpacking plants needed to improve worker safety, and the GAO reported again in 2016 and 2017 that meatpacking plants had worker illness rates that were four times higher than in other manufacturing sectors. Those reports also noted that meatpacking workers felt discouraged by plant officials from reporting injury or illness, and that medical protocols in plants were outdated or inefficient.
Over the past four years, meat packing companies have sought dozens of waivers seeking to speed up their processing lines. Some pork plants are processing as many as 1,100 animals per hour. During the current pandemic, chicken processing plants have sought 11 separate waivers seeking to allow plants to move 140 chickens per minute through their lines. The pace forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder to keep up.
Working so closely together makes the spread of disease more likely, said Dr. William Schaffner, a public health expert and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.
“By and large, the working conditions are far from ideal for personal health,” Schaffner said. “There’s a lot of intense work and they work very closely together.”
A CDC investigation of the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant, after it was shut down in April due to its COVID-19 outbreak, also found that workers were forced to pack tightly together in order to punch in for their shifts, take breaks or use their lockers. When social-distancing recommendations were made to fight COVID-19, Smithfield workers say they simply couldn’t follow the advice and still do their jobs.
“The union did give us awareness about washing hands and to try to keep a social distance,” said Achut Deng, who has worked at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls for six years. “It was too hard to do that because, at my workplace, people are working shoulder to shoulder.”
Deng said some workers weren’t all that worried about the threat of disease spreading through their ranks prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the disease started shutting down businesses across the country, workers at Smithfield said they didn’t give it much thought.
“Did we take it seriously? I didn’t, and it was the same for most of my co-workers,” said Deng, who tested positive for COVID-19 on April 4.
The fact that workers weren’t all that concerned about COVID-19 points to another challenge for public health in the meatpacking industry — its diverse workforce, said Perry, the GWU researcher.
Meatpacking relies heavily on immigrant labor. Nationally, about a third of the industry’s workforce are immigrants, so multiple languages can be spoken in any given plant. In some of the packing plants Perry was researching in, as many as 10 different languages were spoken, she said. At the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, as many as 40 different languages are spoken.
Illnesses, such as the flu or COVID-19, also tend to spread among lower-income populations, such as the many immigrants who work at Smithfield and other meat plants, Schaffner said. Due to low pay, many meat plant workers often live in cramped quarters that allow for the spread of viruses at both home and in the workplace. Many also do not have adequate access to health care, he said.
To date, there are no rules that require employers to make sure their employees can actually understand the information they’re distributing about the threat of disease. In fact, the CDC investigators dispatched to Sioux Falls noted in their April 23 report that when Smithfield workers started being sent home sick with COVID-19 symptoms in March, they were given packets of information about what to do next but the information was only printed in English.
“When we’re talking about infection control and information, the plants have to be responsible for translating all of that information into languages that workers will understand,” Perry said.
The way meat processors have incentivised workers to stay on the job at all costs has likely contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the industry, Perry said. The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, for example, offered employees a $500 bonus if they didn’t miss a day of work during the pandemic before it shut down. However, employees were told if they were sent home due to COVID-19, they would still be eligible for the payment. Smithfield wasn’t alone in offering such bonuses.
From a disease control standpoint, attendance bonuses are a bad idea, Perry said. They encourage employees to come to work whether they feel ill or not. In the case of COVID-19, a disease for which as many as 80% of infected people will show only mild symptoms — if they show any symptoms at all — incentivising even mildly sick workers to keep punching in has the potential to spread a disease far and wide among workers.
“Any kind of policy that disincentivizes people taking time off for sickness is going to increase risk for infection in the plants,” Perry said. “Those practices have to be really redesigned to ensure that they’re not incentivizing sick people to come to work.”
Now, Americans are being told to brace for widespread shortages or much higher prices for pork, beef and even chicken — the country’s main sources of protein. On April 24, Tyson Foods, one of the four major meatpacking companies in the U.S., took out a full-page ad in the New York Times saying the nation’s food supply chain is breaking down. U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, called the situation a “food crisis” in an April 26 letter to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
As much as 30% of America’s pork processing capacity, as well as up to 25% of the nation’s beef processing capacity, has been shut down due to plant closures as the disease has run rampant among workers. The meat processing slowdown has caused a backlog of animals waiting to be sent to a processor and has farmers wrestling with the prospect of euthanizing millions of animals that can’t be sold.
In his letter, Rounds said the number of cattle, pigs and chickens at farms and ranches across the country was at a breaking point and called for immediate federal action to protect food workers before packing plants can reopen, and to help farmers euthanize and dispose of unsellable livestock.
“The inability to develop a commonsense national plan to protect food workers and public health, while simultaneously operating the nation’s critical food infrastructure, is failing farmers, ranchers, food workers and consumers,” Rounds said.
Citing threats to the American food supply due to plant closures, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28 that used the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as a critical industry and order packing plants to remain open during the pandemic.