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Immigrant meatpacking workers: essential or disposable?

contributed photo Tyson workers have had plastic dividers separating them on the production line.

Meatpacking plants, particularly the big national and international companies, have instituted a veil of secrecy. They failed in the early days of COVID-19 to tell their employees of its dangers, and more importantly, failed to institute distancing and sanitizing processes that might have prevented workers from carrying the virus to their families and the larger community outside the plant.

The CEOs, plant managers and public relations staff assured local and state governments and the public that they had everything under control and that they loved their workers as much as their stockholders. The bosses used both negative and positive incentives to keep their workers on the job, even if they had the symptoms of the dreaded virus. When word of the silent stalker spilled outside the walls of the plants (due to courageous individual workers, their unions, and allies), state and federal governments took up the mantle of obfuscation, procrastination, and occasional coercive behavior, ultimately hiding behind the fig leaf of the Defense Production Act (DPA).

While community pressure forced some plants to make significant production-line changes, they closed the plants too late, adding to the cost to the workers, their families, and nearby communities where they lived. The evidence follows.

First, the overall picture. Latinos make up 6.2 percent of Iowa’s population, but their share of COVID-19 cases has climbed from 17 percent in mid-April to 27 percent on June 9. Thus, Iowa Latinos are over four times and Asians and Africans/African Americans are about three times more likely than Iowa’s general population to be COVID-19 positive.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has shown that nationally meatpacking counties have nearly twice as high an infection rate as all other U.S. counties. In Iowa, the top 10 counties with the greatest proportion of their population testing positive for COVID-19 on June 9 are either home to a meatpacking plant or to workers employed in such a plant in an adjacent county.

What should be done?

Report outbreaks: The IDPH has defined an outbreak as three or more COVID-19 cases among nursing-home residents but for meatpacking and other manufacturing firms, the bar is much higher. Outbreaks in nursing homes are published on the IDPH website; meatpacking plant outbreaks are reported by the governor — if a reporter happens to ask. Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of IDPH, indicated May 5 that the 10 percent threshold was appropriated from the percent absenteeism required by IDPH for declaring a flu epidemic in the public schools.

The IDPH did not account for the fact that the virulence of COVID-19 is many times that of influenza. The threshold for reporting an outbreak in meatpacking plants should be set at 3-5 cases and those should be posted on the IDPH website. This will allow for an early response and will limit the spread to the larger community — if contact tracing is immediately implemented. Persons with skills in Spanish and other languages spoken in the plants should be hired and trained immediately. The governor has not explained the contact tracing procedure — if there is a procedure — that IDPH follows for meatpacking workers with COVID-19.

Require businesses to report: It is equally important that the data be available for determining whether the outbreak threshold has been reached. Sand, the state auditor, states that Iowa Code gives the state epidemiologist and/or the IDPH authority to require businesses to divulge the number (but not the names) of employees with particular infectious diseases if it is deemed “necessary for the protection of the health of the public.” The governor should exercise this prerogative.

Remove incentives to work while sick: We do not know that all plants rescinded or modified bonuses to workers for perfect attendance (which encourages working while sick) or if workers who are ill or have been exposed to the coronavirus receive paid leave. What we do know is that Tyson has now reinstituted its pre-pandemic sick-leave policies. According to Business Insider, only workers testing positive for COVID-19 or having “symptoms of the virus” are offered short-term disability, and from July 1 forward will receive only 60 percent of their regular pay, rather than the current 90 percent.

Talk to workers: Reynolds should sit down with groups of meatpacking workers to hear their perspectives on conditions in the plants where they work. Her and her staff’s daily contacts with the managers or CEOs of meatpacking firms suggest she has spent enough time with them to understand their perspectives. She just might also learn something from the workers

The IDPH’s approach puts the state in a reactive mode with respect to limiting coronavirus infections in meatpacking plants and in the communities that host them and their workers. In short, the meatpacking firms are in the driver’s seat — and the governor is being taken for a ride.

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Jan Flora is professor emeritus at Iowa State University.

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