‘Historic failure’: pandemic tragedies in the meatpacking industry were decades in the making

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The pandemic exposed the human cost of the meatpacking industry’s power: ‘It’s enormously frightening’

Illustration of meatpacking workers

The message from companies and regulators has been clear: Americans need meat, and workers need to risk their lives to provide it

Early in the pandemic, Covid outbreaks were rampant in America’s meatpacking plants – the factories that kill, cut and package animals.

But the chairman of one of biggest meat companies in the US, Tyson, argued that these factories should stay open to feed Americans.

“It is as essential as healthcare,” John Tyson wrote in several newspaper ads. Days later Donald Trump issued an executive order to keep meat plants running.

The following month, 49 meatpacking workers died of Covid.

The message was clear: Americans needed meat, and workers needed to risk their lives to provide it. And Osha – the labor department agency that is supposed to protect workers – could seemingly do little to protect them.

In a factory in Greeley, Colorado, owned by meat conglomerate JBS, at least six workers died early in the pandemic. Osha is supposed to investigate every workplace fatality reported to them, but it took months for them to send an investigator.

When Osha finally showed up to investigate, it found JBS failed to make its workplace free of “hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. The penalty: a proposed fine of $13,494.

That’s about how much revenue JBS earns in 60 seconds.

Meatpacking workers tried to tell Osha about their concerns. In the first weeks of the pandemic, dozens of them officially complained to Osha. They said management was forcing people with Covid symptoms to continue coming to work; that social distancing guidelines weren’t enforced; and that they had inadequate protective equipment.

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Meanwhile, meatpacking executives privately believed that outbreaks were unavoidable, documents revealed by ProPublica have shown. “Social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops,” wrote Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan. A Tyson official blamed outbreaks on the workers’ crowded living and commuting arrangements: “This is a culture issue.”

In a way the companies were right: it was unavoidable – partly because, for decades, the meatpacking industry had worked to take bargaining power away from workers to create an industry that has been criticized for treating them as disposable parts of an assembly line.

“What Covid did was just really shed light on what workers dealt with anyway,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents workers at the Greeley JBS plant. “Osha just failed. They did absolutely nothing to help workers during the worst pandemic we’ve seen in our lifetime.”

Representative Jim Clyburn, who heads a congressional investigation into the coronavirus, wrote, “[Osha] failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths.”

In a statement, Osha said it was committed to worker safety and added that, as President Joe Biden had ordered, it was “continuing to review” its response to Covid in order to implement any changes that could better protect workers. It said Clyburn’s letter and requests referred to actions under the Trump administration.

A highway billboard bears the images of the six employees who died of Covid-19 while employed at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley.

The failures weren’t limited to factories. The 500,000 people working in meatpacking inevitably came in contact with people in their community and spread the virus. Researchers found that by July 2020, areas nearby meatpacking plants had far more Covid cases and deaths than expected: about 5,000 additional Covid deaths and about a quarter million additional cases.

Put another way, meatpacking plants were connected to 6% to 8% of all early-pandemic Covid cases and 3% to 4% of all early-pandemic Covid deaths. “This needs to go down in the history books as one of the biggest failures to the working man or woman that this country’s ever seen,” Cordova said.


A history of injuries and blazing line speeds

The modern meatpacking industry runs on human workers repeating the same motion, over and over, regardless of how much their bodies tell them to stop.

Each year, American meatpacking workers kill, cut and package about 9.3 billion chickens, 34 million cows and 130 million pigs. The numbers are too big to imagine. But in order to process that much meat, the USDA allows poultry companies to push 140 birds per minute through their lines – a number that was increased to 175 during the pandemic. That means some workers perform up to 24,000 knife cuts and lift 15 tons of meat each day, according to research estimates.

American poultry workers process about 9.3 billion chickens each year.

When Osha collected data on repetitive stress injuries, meatpacking companies consistently reported the highest rates of any industry. But in 2001, the agency stopped collecting such detailed data, removing the column that classified injuries as musculoskeletal disorders.

Osha said that repetitive stress injuries are still reported in Osha logs, but a 2016 GAO report found that that information is in a separate incident report that is generally not sent to Osha or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it difficult to gather and track. Osha also said the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on repetitive stress injuries; however that data is an estimate calculated from random surveys of employers.

“I’ve had problems with my arm I used to cut because the line was too fast. I’ve had shoulder pain and I cut my finger badly because the production line comes too fast,” said one pork plant worker in Nebraska. “My wife, who works at the plant, almost cut her finger completely off with a saw because she doesn’t have enough time to cut the meat. I’ve seen a lot of people cut their arms, hands, and hurt their shoulders because they’re working too fast. About 1 in 10 workers are on light duty because of injuries.”

In 1999, the Clinton administration issued an ergonomics rule that aimed to protect workers from these repetitive stress injuries. “It was 30 years in the making – 30 years of research to really build a really good standard to protect workers,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, the program director for the immigrant and communities program at the non-profit advocacy organization Nebraska Appleseed.

But a year later, Republicans rescinded the rule.

Meanwhile, managers keep workers on the lines. That can mean that many factories don’t allow workers to take bathroom breaks. A Southern Poverty Law Center survey found that nearly 80% of workers said they can’t use the bathroom when needed. Another survey in Minnesota found that 86% of workers said they get two or fewer bathroom breaks a week.

“It’s very common to hear from workers that they soil themselves,” said Axel Fuentes, the executive director of Rural Community Workers Alliance in Missouri. “They usually make them go in their pants or defecate on the line because they couldn’t get bathroom breaks.”

During the pandemic, keeping workers on the line meant forcing people with Covid to come to work, according to worker complaints to Osha.

Serious and traumatic injuries are also common. In 2015, Osha began requiring employers to report serious injuries promptly after the incident. This involves any injury that requires in-patient hospitalization, amputation of a body part, or loss of an employee’s eye. (Only the states under federal jurisdiction have to report.) And year after year, meatpacking workers are among the most likely to suffer an injury where a body part is amputated. About half of the injuries involve workers losing fingers.

In February, Hussain Ahmed Jalal, an immigrant from Myanmar, was working at the JBS plant in Greeley at 12.40am – after most other workers had gone home.

“As I threw the meat on the conveyor, I accidentally got caught in the conveyor motor with my gloves and my left hand was stuck in the conveyor,” Ahmed Jalal said. “I called for somebody to help me and stop the motor and conveyor, but no one was around. Nobody saw the conveyor. I fell down and waited about an hour until the fire department finally came.”

The accident amputated his entire left hand.

Since the accident, he has gone through three different surgeries and is receiving workers’ compensation. He as worked at the factory since 2011, but he’s unsure when or if he will be able to return to work. Osha investigated the accident several months later and issued five safety penalties, according to Osha citations obtained by the Guardian.

The proposed penalty: $174,566.

JBS did not comment on Jalal’s injury or the related Osha proposed penalties. In a statement the firm said worker safety was its priority and, when asked about its pandemic response, said: “We strongly disagree with any claim that suggests we have not prioritized the safety of our workforce at all times throughout the pandemic.”

All of the top meat producing firms have defended their safety records and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tyson has also said safety is its “top priority” and since 1 October has required US employees to have Covid-19 vaccinations. Smithfield Foods has said it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to protect employees.


The shift to an immigrant workforce

Meatpacking plants were once concentrated in cities, like this plant in 1955 in Chicago, Illinois.

The precarious work conditions in meatpacking – and lack of labor protections – were decades in the making, and often engineered to be this way.

When Osha was created in 1971, lawmakers assumed labor unions would play a large part in keeping companies in check. In addition, competition in the job market would allow workers to move to another company with safer labor practices, especially since meatpacking plants were clustered in dense urban areas.

But a handful of meatpacking companies had an idea of how to increase their power and maximize profits.

They first started moving meatpacking plants away from large cities and into rural areas where they would typically be the primary economic driver in the region. This gave them immense political power that still lives on to this day. For example, in Greeley, JBS employs nearly 4,600 workers, which accounts for about 10% of working adults in the town.

“These companies are so powerful that they run certain states like Iowa, Arkansas and North Carolina where the governors can’t do anything without their support,” said Debbie Berkowitz, former Osha chief of staff who’s been involved in worker safety at meat and poultry processing plants for more than 40 years. “This means that workers don’t get protected. The power of the industry is enormously frightening.”

And those new powerhouses – Cargill, JBS, Tyson and National – started buying up smaller companies. These companies kept on pointing to their decreasing injury stats to show that their workplaces were getting safer.

But Berkowitz said, “Nothing had changed except that the industry became enormously consolidated, lots of small companies were gobbled up by the big players – JBS, Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill.”

Those four companies now control 85% of the beef market and 70% of the pork market.

In addition to the geographic restructuring, these companies started to recruit a workforce that had less organizing power.

Meatpacking used to be dominated by native-born white and Black workers. But starting in the 1980s, the industry started to rely more and more on immigrant labor. In 1990, only about 18% of meatpacking workers were Hispanic. Just 10 years later, about 42% were Hispanic.

This coincided with the conservative attack on labor unions and the subsequent demise of an organized workforce.

In 1952, about 90% of meatpacking workers were covered under union contracts. By 1983, union membership had plummeted to 33% and by 2020 it was just 18%.

Meatpacking was once a middle-class job for citizens, with the average production worker in 1974 earning more than $25 an hour in 2021 dollars. But the active recruitment of workers with less organizing power allowed these wages to plummet.

During the Great Recession in 2008, wages fell to about $16 an hour. Now it’s about $19 an hour. But that’s the average; many meatpacking workers are paid far less. About one in five meatpacking workers are food stamp recipients, double the amount from 20 years ago, according to US census microdata.

As historian Wilson J Warren writes, the US meat industry transformed “from a relatively safe, well-paying industry employing primarily native-born white and Black people into an increasingly dangerous, low-paying industry employing a large number of immigrants”.

And the ultimate goal for all of this was to improve the bottom line.

While consumers have been paying more for meat and the farmers who raise these animals have been paid less, these meatpacking giants have profited. In 2017, the top four meatpacking companies had a combined annual revenue of $207bn.

This year, the biggest of those companies, Cargill, brought in record profits, making $4.3bn in the first nine months of this fiscal year.


Underreported data masks severity of the problem

For decades, there have been reports of meatpacking companies urging their workers to not report injuries.

In the late-1980s, Osha found dozens of underreported injuries in large plants in Nebraska. Workers who were sick or hurt were pressured to keep working, or risk losing their jobs. The US Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) found similar practices in an investigation a few years ago, including one doctor who said injured meatpacking workers asked for medical permission to work “because their employer had threatened to fire them if they could not do their jobs”.

“I never stopped working because they never cared about my injury,” said a worker at a pork processing plant in Milan, Missouri, who injured their finger in April while cleaning a platform on the processing line due to high-speed work. “All they did was to give me a Band-Aid and my supervisor said that was just to prevent water from getting into the wound. My fingernail is completely off and I’m still in pain.”

In the past, the labor department used to collect data on repetitive trauma injuries. But in the early 2000s, Osha stopped requiring employers to collect this data separately, which made it look like overall workplace injuries were plummeting – something industry groups would boast about year after year.

But even when Osha collected that data, it may have been a severe undercount. When the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed hundreds of meatpacking workers in Alabama, they found that 66% of respondents said they suffered from symptoms of these repetitive motion injuries, like chronic pain, swelling and numbness.

“The industry is much more dangerous now than in the 1990s, and the biggest factors are consolidation and cutting corners of worker safety,” said Berkowitz, the former Osha chief of staff.

Notably, Osha collects comprehensive data only from the 29 states that are under its jurisdiction. All other states police themselves.

Meanwhile the number of Osha inspectors is at the lowest number since the early 1970s, after the Trump administration slashed the agency’s resources.

There are only 1,815 inspectors (752 federal and 1,063 state) to inspect the 9.8m workplaces under Osha’s jurisdiction. Under current federal Osha staffing, the agency is only able to inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 165 years on average.

Osha even struggled to count the number of meatpacking Covid deaths, according to a report by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.

Osha reported 92 deaths in 2020. But one Osha official told the subcommittee that they relied in part on data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization, which counted more than 260 deaths in 2020.


‘These workers were sacrificial’

Carolina Sanchez, left, is comforted by her son, Saul, at a protest outside the Osha office in Denver. Sanchez's husband, Saul, was the first worker to die of Covid-19 at the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado.

About one month after Hussain Ahmed Jalal lost his hand in an accident this year, another accident happened at the Greeley JBS plant.

Jonathan Bryan Duerst, a 55-year-old worker, was knocked over by a piece of equipment and fell into a vat of chemicals used to process animal hides. Duerst died.

Osha investigated and found eight serious violations that contributed to his death. The result: a proposed fine of $58,709.

On one hand, Congress is investigating the industry for the hundreds of Covid deaths. In February, the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis opened an investigation into JBS USA, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods for refusing to take basic precautions to protect their workers – “a callous disregard for worker’s health”, the committee said – Cargill and National Beef Packing company (National Beef) were added to its ongoing investigation.

But the US has long turned a blind eye to an industry that allows a half million workers to work in dangerous conditions, all in an effort to fill the country’s huge demand for meat. And government regulators have been unable to protect them. If anything, Covid made it clear “that these workers were sacrificial and, by all means necessary, they have to keep production going,” said Cordova, the Greeley union president.

Last year, the average American consumed about 225 pounds of meat.

“When people buy any meat product they have to be thinking about how their food gets to the table,” said the pork plant worker in Nebraska. “We get it there. And we make many sacrifices to get it there.”

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