Nearly 300 meat workers – some in Colorado – have died from COVID

By Josh Funk, The Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb.— At least 59,000 meat-packing workers have caught COVID-19 and 269 workers, including several in Colorado, died when the virus ravaged the industry last year, which is significantly more than expected thought so, according to a new report from the United States House released on Wednesday.

The meat packaging industry was one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, with workers standing side by side along production lines. The U.S. House Select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, which reviewed internal documents from five of the largest meat-packing companies, said the companies could have done more to protect their workers.

The new estimate of infections in industry is nearly three times higher than the 22,400 that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said have been infected or exposed. And the actual number could be even higher because company data typically did not include coronavirus cases confirmed by external testing or self-reported by employees.

At the height of the epidemics in the spring of 2020, U.S. meat packaging production fell to around 60% of normal, as several large factories were forced to temporarily close for deep cleaning and safety upgrades or operated at slower speeds due to worker shortages. The report says businesses were slow take protective measures such as distributing protective equipment and installing barriers between workstations.

“Instead of grappling with clear indications that workers were contracting coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions at meat-packing facilities, meat-packing companies prioritized profits and production instead. and worker safety, continuing to employ practices that have led to overcrowded facilities in which the virus easily spreads. said the report.

A memorial altar made for Juan Marin by his family after his death due to symptoms related to COVID-19. Marin worked at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Fort Morgan. (Carl Payne, Colorado Sun Special)

Martin Rosas, who represents a Kansas-based chapter of the UFCW with more than 17,000 members in three states, said the union was pushing companies for better protections.

“The harsh reality is that many companies were slow to act at the start of the epidemic, and whatever progress has been made is because the union has called for action,” Rosas said.

The report is based on documents from JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef. Together, they control over 80% of the beef market and over 60% of the pork market nationwide.

The JBS meat-packing plant in Greeley resumed operations on April 24, 2020, after a brief shutdown due to a coronavirus outbreak. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The North American Meat Institute trade group has championed the industry’s response to the pandemic. And Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield and JBS released statements on Wednesday saying they had worked aggressively to meet federal health and safety standards and had taken additional steps to protect their employees, such as performing large-scale testing. and urge employees to get vaccinated.

“The health and safety of our team members always comes first and our response since the onset of the pandemic has demonstrated this commitment, with an investment of over $ 760 million to date. We took aggressive steps to keep the virus out of our facilities and adopted hundreds of security measures that often exceeded federal guidelines and industry standards, ”JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said. .

Companies have expressed regret at the devastation caused by the virus.

“Even illness or loss of life from COVID-19 is one too many, which is why we have taken progressive steps since the start of the pandemic to protect the health and safety of our workers,” the door said. – spoken by Tyson, Gary Mickelson.

The report says infection rates were particularly high at some meat-packing plants between spring 2020 and early 2021. At a JBS plant in Hyrum, Utah, 54% of the workforce contracted the virus. Nearly 50% of workers at a Tyson factory in Amarillo, Texas have been infected. And 44% of employees at the National Beef plant in Tama, Iowa, have contracted COVID-19.

The report says internal documents show Smithfield aggressively pushed back on government safety recommendations after experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspected its pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after a major outbreak . Days earlier, the CEO of Smithfield had told the CEO of National Beef in an email that “employees are afraid to come to work.”

Juan Marin and his family were among many essential workers still working at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the country in early spring. Marin died after contracting the disease. (Carl Payne, Colorado Sun Special)

Maryland representative Jamie Raskin said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must do more to protect workers from wrapping meat.

“Some of these companies don’t treat factory workers much better than the animals that pass through them,” Raskin said.

Debbie Berkowitz, of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for the Work and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, said the industry was slow to respond and federal regulators have not forced companies to act.

“When the pandemic struck, of course, it was going to hit the meat packing plants very hard and very quickly,” said Berkowitz, a former OSHA official who testified Wednesday. “What has been the industry’s response – not to protect workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, not to separate workers 6 feet from each other, which was the previous directive issued end of February – but just to continue. “


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Joseph D. Whitman

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