The crisis faced by meatpacking and food processing workers amid the coronavirus pandemic requires further intervention, say faith leaders. More than 100 religious leaders have signed a letter to be sent to Congress and President Trump demanding additional assistance for rural communities and food system workers.
“It is a moral imperative to respect the God-given dignity of all of God’s children, and especially the most vulnerable, which in this case certainly includes our brothers and sisters in the meatpacking industry and the farm working industry,” said the Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, on a call with the press Wednesday.
Organizations including Church World Service, RuralOrganizing.org, and the National Farm Worker Ministry are calling for expanded funding for rural healthcare and education, a halt to deportations, and stronger protections for meatpacking plant workers, who are falling ill from Covid-19 in huge numbers.
On the Wednesday call, the groups took particular aim at Trump’s executive order, signed Tuesday, which requires meatpacking plants to stay open and overrules local and state authority to shutter the plants temporarily in the interest of public health.
The industrial meat sector is “built on the exploitation of both growers and workers,” said Michelle Osborne, program manager at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. “Keeping plants open without also looking after the farmers and workers who contribute to these plants makes our food system weaker, not stronger.”
Some workers say they continue to face unsanitary working conditions at meatpacking plants even as nearly 90 meat and food plants have reported outbreaks of Covid-19 among workers. Two workers from a Case Farms poultry facility in Morgantown, North Carolina, detailed through a translator the lax safety precautions at the plant.
One worker reported that Case Farms had begun providing face masks and plastic face shields to workers only in the past week, and that social distancing measures at the plant were inadequate to keep workers far enough apart to prevent spreading the virus. Another worker reported that after she missed work due to illness, the company resisted paying her for the missed time until she was briefly hospitalized.
Case Farms did not respond to a request for comment, and no cases of Covid-19 have been publicly reported at the company’s Morgantown plant.
The situation at meatpacking plants presents workers with “an inexcusable choice of going to work and exposing themselves to this pandemic, or not going to work and losing their income,” said Hunter Ogletree, co-executive director of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. He said meat companies should be required to give workers at least two weeks of paid sick time, enforce social distancing guidelines, and provide adequate protective gear.
According to an analysis by FERN, as of April 29, more than 4,300 meatpacking and food processing plant workers have confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 20 have died. The number of cases is likely much higher, as data is inconsistent across the country.