COVID struck the nation’s meatpacking plants more than a year ago. But worker safety is still a contentious issue

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The Storm Lake Tyson pork plant was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak in May 2020 that affected one-quarter of its workforce. Natalie Krebs / IPR
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By Natalie Krebs, Iowa Public Radio

In late October, Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety and health expert and former senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, sat in front of a Congressional House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus and delivered some shocking statistics.

“More workers have died from COVID-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry, than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the past 15 years,” she said. “And I bet it’s more than that now that we have better numbers.”

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Berkowitz testified at a Congressional hearing following the release of a report that found more than 59,000 workers at the nation’s top meat processing companies’ plants were infected with the coronavirus in the first year of the pandemic and at least 269 workers died. Figures that were three times higher than previous estimates.

The report is one of the few documents that has offered some insight into the tragic outbreaks that swept through the nation’s meatpacking plants last year. 

The virus swept through processing facilities across Iowa, the nation’s top pork producing state, and much of the Midwest and nation, sending ripples through the $200 billion meatpacking industry.

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But a year and a half into the pandemic, many are still searching for answers on the outbreaks while pushing for change. 

The nation’s major meatpacking companies have been at the center of concerns over worker safety. 

They’ve long maintained they’ve done a lot during this pandemic to protect their workers.

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“We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars to transform our facilities with protective measures, everything from temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distance monitors, masking, and our always on testing program,” said Claudia Coplein, the chief medical officer for Tyson Foods.

Gary Walters, the senior safety director at Smithfield Foods, said they’ve made a long list of changes made under his watch. That includes everything from mandatory masks and social distancing to in-house testing and vaccine clinics.

“We redesigned our plants, in some cases even built additional facilities,” Walters said.

Prioritizing profits over worker safety

But the Congressional report released in late October painted the companies’ responses in a very different light.

The investigation concluded the top five meat processing companies, which includes JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef, could have done a lot more to prevent worker infection and deaths.

It found companies pushed back against state and federal recommendations for coronavirus precautions early in the pandemic and “prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily.” That’s while it said federal regulators like OSHA failed to enact regulatory standards.

Following the release of the report, Smithfield Foods reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor, agreeing to make systemic changes to its health procedures and policies relating to infectious diseases. The other companies have yet to reach settlements.

At the hearing, Berkowitz said companies failed to enact basic health precautions like social distancing as recommended by health officials.

“What is stunning is that despite CDC recommendations to the public and businesses about using social distancing to slow the spread of COVID, the meat industry decided to thumb their noses at this first recommendation, and just keep those crowded conditions in place,” she said.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican who represents eastern Iowa, pushed back against Berkowitz and the report’s findings.
Kate Payne / IPR File

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican who represents eastern Iowa, pushed back against Berkowitz and the report’s findings.

She argued plants, like the JBS pork facility in her district of Ottumwa, took aggressive protective measures early on and pointed to the impact that closing the plants had on the food supply chain.

“Do any of you know how many farmers had to euthanize their herds? Do any of you how many farmers committed suicide? Because that happened in my district when farmers had no place to take their hogs or their beef or their chickens,” Miller-Meeks said.

Other top Republicans like former President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds also emphasized concerns about the food supply chain.

As the outbreaks swept the nation in the first half of 2020, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order the plants to stay open as critical infrastructure to the nation’s food supply chain.

Reynolds strongly supported this.

During a press conference in May 2020 — where state health officials confirmed an outbreak at a Storm Lake pork processing plant affecting nearly a quarter of its workforce — Reynolds expressed concern that the state’s pork and beef industry could lose more than $2.7 billion due to short-term plant closures.

“This is devastating for Iowa farmers and producers and it will be felt at all levels. Consumers are already seeing it at the grocery stores with higher prices of meats and limits of how much they can buy, which disproportionately affects lower income Iowans,” she said.

At the same time, Tyson Foods took out full page ads in the nation’s largest newspapers claiming closing the plants was “breaking” the food supply chain and aired national ads that thanked frontline workers for their services, saying their safety was their priority.

But these financial concerns don’t appear to have played out. Top meatpacking companies, including Tyson, have generated record profits during the pandemic due to increased prices and increased consumer demand, according to federal government reports.

As the outbreaks swept the nation in the first half of 2020, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order the plants to stay open as critical infrastructure to the nation’s food supply chain. Reynolds, pictured here in Oct. 2021, strongly supported this.
Charlie Neibergall / AP File

Recently, Reynolds has defended the need to keep the plants running, saying meatpacking companies and the state took many measures to properly protect workers like conducting mass testing.

“I was also one of the governors that led with testing surveillance, and so I was able to go into these processing plants and do testing and identify who was testing positive and not,” Reynolds said on a Republican National Committee podcast in September.

“So that the workers that were going in there not only had the appropriate PPE — protection equipment — but also knew that the people that they were working with had tested negative.”

‘OSHA needs to prepare for the next pandemic’

Melissa Perry, the chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, has many concerns over worker safety at the plants early on in the pandemic.

Perry said public health officials weren’t always getting the information they needed from companies about the outbreaks to make decisions.

“In epidemiology and public health surveillance, it’s data that you need, first and foremost as your bedrock foundation to address any kind of outbreak or any kind of health problem, and so that those systems weren’t in place,” she said.

It’s still unclear from state data how many of Iowa’s plant workers were affected.

Iowa state health department data on meatpacking plants outbreaks provided to IPR still lists infection rates that frequently contradict reports from local officials, OSHA inspection reports and even numbers reported in Tyson press releases at the time. 

Perry said plants could have taken other measures to prevent the outbreaks, like slowing line speeds so workers could space further apart, which would also have allowed them to keep operating.

She said the outbreaks also emphasize the need for OSHA to enact an airborne pathogen standard, which would require establishments, like meatpacking plants, to issue protective measures preventing worker exposure to airborne pathogens, like the coronavirus.

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“So much is known about how to prevent the spread of airborne pathogens,” Perry said. “It’s just a matter of the will and the organization and the consensus to implement them in plants.”

OSHA currently has a standard only for bloodborne pathogens that was created in the early 1990s during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Other workers’ rights advocates agree with Perry that there was a severe lack of government oversight at the plants that still needs to be addressed by lawmakers. 

Mark Lauritsen, the International Vice President at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 260,000 of the nation’s meatpacking and food processing workers, also pointed to OSHA for failing to oversee safety at the plants. 

He called their oversight during the outbreaks “non-existent,” and blames leaders like Trump and Reynolds for disempowering the federal and state regulatory agencies during the pandemic. 

“They were more concerned about forcing plants to stay open and doing anything they could to keep production up at the expense of, you know, infecting and ultimately killing people that work in those facilities,” Lauritsen said.

Iowa runs its own federally-approved OSHA program under the state’s Division of Labor, which covers the state’s meatpacking plants. According to records obtained by IPR, Iowa OSHA conducted COVID-19 inspections in six plants that state health officials reported having outbreaks affecting more than 100 workers in spring of 2020.
Natalie Krebs / IPR

Lauritsen said OSHA should have issued an Emergency Temporary Standard, which would have created enforceable regulatory standards requiring employers to protect workers during the pandemic. 

This was something echoed in the congressional report, which found last year, federal OSHA issued just nine citations to three meatpacking companies with severe outbreaks despite receiving over 100 complaints and significantly scaled back inspections in 2020.

This includes a fine of $13,500 to a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where more than 1,300 workers were infected. It was the maximum allowed under federal law.

Iowa runs its own federally-approved OSHA program under the state’s Division of Labor, which covers the state’s meatpacking plants.

According to records obtained by IPR, Iowa OSHA conducted COVID-19 inspections in six plants that state health officials reported having outbreaks affecting more than 100 workers in spring of 2020. 

It issued just one citation for $1,914 to the Iowa Premium beef plant in Tama for failing to keep and supply government officials with logs of work-related injuries.

“OSHA needs to prepare for the next pandemic, or the next event that takes place,” Lauritsen said. “And that doesn’t matter if it’s in healthcare, if it’s in meatpacking, or if it’s in retail. OSHA needs to be ready, and they need to learn from this.”

‘COVID’s shined a bright spotlight on the conditions of meatpacking workers’

Going forward, some Democrats have said they want to make worker safety a priority.

When President Joe Biden took office in January, he immediately issued an executive order to protect worker health and safety, calling it a “national priority and moral imperative.” This included reviewing OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19

The Biden administration also declined to fight a March federal court ruling that struck down a Trump-era U.S. Department of Agriculture rule allowing pork processing facilities to speed up production lines.

Unions like UFCW and workplace safety experts supported this move, saying that slower lines are safer overall for workers and allow them to be properly socially distanced.

However, the USDA announced in November it will allow nine pork processing facilities, including a JBS plant in Ottumwa, to increase speed lines to determine if it can boost production without endangering worker safety.

In September, the USDA announced it is investing $700 million in grants to farm and food workers impacted by COVID-19 with health and safety costs.

In Iowa, state Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat from Waterloo, who’s running for governor next year, said he’s introducing legislation this session called the Workers Bill of Rights. 

Smith said the bill would review Iowa OSHA standards during an infectious disease emergency and also addresses issues like minimum wage requirements for essential workers.

“We also laid out standards of what a safe working environment should look like, making sure there’s paid leave for employees who are sick because they work in close quarters and are forced to have to take time off from work,” he said.

Smith introduced a similar bill last session, but it never got a hearing in the Republican-dominated legislature.

Union leaders like Lauritsen say one silver lining from the plant outbreaks is that they’ve brought a lot of interest to an industry that has long remained hidden from the public’s eye.

“It’s led to a lot more discussions about longer term fixes to the problems that were plaguing the meatpacking industry, and those discussions are going on now,” he said. “So COVID’s shined a bright spotlight on the conditions of meatpacking workers.”

Lauritsen said thanks to new safety measures at plants and the availability of the vaccine, COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants are no longer happening.

In August, Tyson Foods became one of the nation’s first major employers and the only major meatpacking company to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for frontline workers. 

The company announced in late October that more than 96 percent of its active workforce was fully vaccinated.

Other large meatpacking companies will likely fall under the Biden administration’s requirement that companies with at least 100 employees ensure they are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or tested weekly.

Iowa is one of ten states that is part of a lawsuit challenging this requirement, claiming the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to issue the requirement.

Lauritsen said going forward, he’s concerned other safety protocols might be slipping in plants due to all the focus on the pandemic for the past year and a half.

“I’m kind of nervous to see how much we’ve slipped back, just because COVID has taken up all the space,” he said.

Perry said she’s afraid meatpacking worker safety will fall back off the public’s radar entirely as the pandemic dies down.

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“I’m concerned that…the new attention won’t endure,” she said. “So I think it’s something to really emphasize and try to make the public aware of how hidden this industry is.”

Perry said there are many changes in government regulations and industry standards that need to be made – before the next pandemic hits.

This is part one of a three-part series.

This project was produced as part of the 2021 National Fellowship with USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

With support from Hola Iowa with the Spanish translations

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