Working assembly lines for low wages at U.S. food processing plants has never been easy.
“The workers have to process at least 122 chickens per minute, the workers will be standing shoulder to shoulder,” said Magaly Licolli, co-founder of the nonprofit Venceremos. “The workers pretty much act like machines.”
Licolli, whose organization’s name means “we shall overcome,” strives to ensure the rights of poultry workers in Arkansas.
“Many of them have to wear diapers because they are not allowed or granted enough bathroom breaks,” Licolli said.
Now, difficult work has often become downright dangerous. More than 10,000 coronavirus infections have been tied to more than 170 processing plants in the U.S.
“They signed up for a job to process meat, protein, for this country,” said Kim Cordova, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union rep in Colorado. “They didn’t sign up to die.”
At least 45 workers in the meatpacking industry have died of COVID-19, including seven at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado.
“It’s not too late for those employees but it’s too late for my dad,” said Beatriz Sanchez, the daughter of one JBS plant employee, referring to her late father’s co-workers. “My dad is gone and nothing is going to bring him back.”
Licolli said plants like one in her area were very late in providing their employees personal protective equipment and establishing social distancing measures.
“So really the company was not really taking care of the workers, it was not their priority,” she said.
Testing of workers for the virus has been sporadic, she said, paid sick time is lacking and information about the number of positive cases often isn’t shared.
“I think sometimes they’ve been portrayed as being uncaring but that absolutely has been not the case,” said Keith Belk, chairman of the Animal Sciences Department at Colorado State University, referring to meatpacking companies.
He said the companies simply don’t have the tools to identify infected workers who are symptom-free.
“The ultimate opportunity to control it would be to not allow it into the plant to begin with and that’s just really difficult to do right now without rapid testing capabilities,” Belk said.
The outbreaks have forced dozens of plants to shut down temporarily and that’s led to meat shortages at some supermarkets. That interruption in the food supply recently prompted President Trump to order all the facilities to reopen.
“That really is the key to make sure that that food ends up on the grocery store shelves is taking care of our team members,” said Dean Banks, president of Tyson Foods.
His company has deep-cleaned plants and installed physical barriers between employees, among other things.
“I think they’re all learning on the fly as we go,” Belk said, referring to plants in general.
“The company keeps saying we are improving, we are improving, but we do not have so much time,” Licolli said.
The pandemic has put some of the country’s most essential and invisible workers in the spotlight. The hope now is that the protections they’ve been given, some say belatedly, are enough to prevent more pain for them and the communities they live in.