Outbreaks in Meatpacking Continue
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the meat industry was immediate and well-publicized. After multiple outbreaks forced facilities to close, meatpacking executives misled the public by arguing that plants needed to run as normal — unimpeded by social distancing mandates and closures — to avoid a meat shortage that never materialized. While they secured an executive order mandating that plants remain open, public pressure and advocacy from labor groups put a spotlight on the industry. Workers in many facilities gained sick leave and other benefits, and plants installed some social distancing equipment in partial compliance with CDC guidelines.
Even after the spotlight on the industry faded, however, the issues continued. Guidelines issued by the CDC weren’t binding, meaning workplace protections were typically inadequate. Testing access and turnaround times have lagged, making control nearly impossible. Worse still, meatpacking facilities around the country misrepresented the scale of outbreaks and hid data from health agencies to continue operating as normal. As public pressure faded, many companies quietly discontinued their sick leave policies and hazard pay. Experts warn that the discontinuation of these policies is a serious public health risk, as it encourages workers to show up even when ill.
These ongoing failures have a tragic human cost: to date, more than 41,000 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus. Stories of entire communities devastated by a mismanaged outbreak are becoming commonplace, especially in poor rural areas with little access to healthcare. Now, with sick workers still pressured into showing up and cases rising, states are struggling to track new outbreaks. Going beyond voluntary guidelines from OSHA and the CDC, Michigan now mandates testing of all food and farmworkers. Workers in other states are still struggling under piecemeal regulations, however, and this also impacts the communities where workers live: Iowa towns with meatpacking plants are still waiting on additional guidance from health officials on how to limit spread between facilities and newly reopened schools, for example.
Struggles to Contain COVID on the Farm
Farmworkers have also struggled with the poor implementation of COVID-19 guidelines. Those with documentation arrive through the H2-A program, which stipulates workers be provided with housing and transportation to and from the field. Even under normal conditions, these facilities are often cramped, so social distancing is difficult. Some state governments took action by limiting the number of workers that could be housed together and mandating PPE on farms, but outbreaks among H2-A workers continue. These often stem from violations of the new regulations: one large outbreak occurred on a cherry farm in Washington where workers were organized into large groups, used unsanitized equipment, and lacked access to testing and medical care.
Workers who are in the country on H2-A visas may not even be aware of their rights, and may not have the language skills to speak up for themselves in the case of a violation. Even worse, they feel that their employment is tenuous, and fear that speaking up could lose them a coveted position in the visa program. The situation is even more dire for undocumented workers, who don’t have the same protections given to H2-A recipients.
As the West Warms, Farmworkers Feel the Heat First
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only challenge facing farmworkers this year. Dry conditions and record-breaking temperatures induced by climate change have led to an exceptionally destructive fire season. With more than a million acres of land burned in California alone, this is causing serious issues for workers across the West. Fields reach more than 100 degrees by midday, and the smoke from surrounding fires strains workers’ lungs. Although workers have legally-mandated access to shade and water breaks, many are paid by the amount of food they harvest and make so little for every unit that breaks become too expensive. This creates pressure to keep working long hours in spite of air quality and heat warnings to spend as little time outdoors as possible. Even at home, overburdened electrical grids and high utility costs mean that farmworkers in poverty can’t cool off in air conditioning or a cold shower.