Meatpacking plants in the spotlight at House hearing

Meatpacking, poultry, and agricultural workers have faced “devastating” conditions during the pandemic, in part due to a lax approach to worker safety by employers and federal regulators, advocates said on Tuesday at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. The hearing comes as food system workers are becoming eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in many states, but new outbreaks of the virus continue to emerge in these crowded workplaces across the country.

A consultant working with the meat industry told the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies that the industry has followed federal guidance for workplace Covid-19 precautions throughout the pandemic and that worker cases have decreased in recent months due to the measures taken by meatpackers. Few states and no private companies are currently releasing data on worker illness at food manufacturing facilities, so the full extent of the ongoing spread of the virus is unknown.

According to FERN’s database on the spread of Covid-19 in the food system, which was cited repeatedly during the hearing, nearly 88,000 food system workers have contracted Covid-19 over the past year. That total, which draws on news reports as well as data released by local and state public health agencies, includes 57,512 meatpacking worker cases, 17,536 food processing worker cases, and 12,916 farmworker cases. At least 375 workers have died.

The hearing included testimony from four witnesses and questions from the subcommittees’ members, including Chair Rosa DeLaura of Connecticut and Ranking Member Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Both senior members agreed that the industry struggled last year to contain the spread of Covid-19 among its workers.

“Just as in 1906, workers in these industries toil away for hours, crammed virtually shoulder-to-shoulder in dangerous processing plants,” said DeLauro in her opening remarks, referencing Upton Sinclair’s landmark book on meatpacking plant working conditions, The Jungle. “With the advent of Covid-19, the conditions facing workers in the meat and poultry plants as well as farmworkers have only gotten worse.”

“There were indeed serious problems and deficiencies in some locations in the meat and poultry processing business” last year, Cole said in his opening remarks.

Those problems were in part due to lax worker safety precautions early in the pandemic that fueled last spring’s virtually unchecked spread of the virus through meatpacking and food processing plants, witnesses said. Last spring, workers at meatpacking plants were incentivized with bonuses to return to work even while sick or after being exposed to the virus, and lacked access to regular hand-washing stations and other sanitation measures, said Debbie Berkowitz, the worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project and a former official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

As a result of the rampant spread of the virus in these facilities, “more meatpacking and poultry workers died of Covid-19 in the twelve months of the pandemic, than died from all work-related causes in the last 15 years,” Berkowitz said. “The meat industry framed their actions as a choice, they could either feed America or they could protect workers. This is a false choice. The industry can and must do both.”

Berkowitz also said OSHA had “abdicated all responsibility” by failing to investigate scores of workplace safety complaints last year, and joined other witnesses in calling for the agency to issue enforceable federal workplace safety requirements for employers during the pandemic.

Dulce Castañeda, a founding member of Children of Smithfield, a group created last year to advocate on behalf of meatpacking workers, spoke of the dangerous conditions her father has faced in a Smithfield facility in Crete, Nebraska, during the pandemic. (FERN reported on the group last year). Workers reported being given hair nets in place of personal protective equipment, being forced to reuse blood-soaked face masks, and being told not to disclose the results of their Covid-19 tests to one another. According to FERN’s tracker, 333 workers at the facility contracted Covid-19 last year and one died.

“It is unfathomable that our communities have lost members because of corporate negligence,” Castañeda said. “And yet, many of the horrifying conditions you’ve heard us mention remain true today … My only request is that, moving forward, you consider the safety of American workers and ensure that each day when they clock into work…they walk into a place of work that is safe and upholds human dignity.”

The virus has also had a “devastating effect” on farmworkers, testified Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice. She noted that “we are still likely underestimating the full impact of the pandemic” on farmworkers, because many are hesitant to be tested for Covid-19 and risk losing work, and few farmworkers receive health insurance or paid time off from their employers.

“This terrible moment should serve as a call to action to remedy some of the many longstanding and unfair exclusions of farmworkers from basic workplace protections,” Figueroa said, referring in part to appropriations riders that exempt small farm employers from complying with federal worker safety provisions or being subject to federal health and safety inspections. “[Farmworkers] should not have to choose between their job or their health, or worse, their lives.”

Also testifying at the hearing was Carmen Rottenberg, managing director of the consulting firm Groundswell Strategy, who previously served for 13 years at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Groundswell counts Smithfield Foods and Bell & Evans among its clients. Rottenberg argued that “the industry’s effective, multi-layered approach to protections,” including temperature checks, worker education, personal protective equipment, and enhanced sanitation, has helped to drive new worker cases down to 95 percent lower than the peak case rate in May. No company officials appeared at the hearing.

Rottenberg cited an analysis by the North American Meat Institute of FERN’s data as evidence of the lowering rate of new cases among meatpacking workers. However, because meat companies refuse to release data on worker illness and business interests in some states have pressured public officials not to release case data by occupation, the true extent of the virus’s continued spread among meatpacking workers is unknown. FERN added tallied over 3,000 meatpacking worker cases in January and over 500 in February, aggregating from news reports and a small handful of public health agencies that are regularly releasing case data by occupation.

One point that many representatives and witnesses agreed upon was the urgent need to vaccinate meatpacking and agricultural workers, though there was less agreement on the role of vaccination in a broader workplace safety effort. Rottenberg argued that vaccination is “the only way to protect [workers] from the hazard of Covid-19,” while Figueroa said that vaccines are “just one element of the Covid solution” and need to be accompanied by other enhancements to workplace safety. FERN has reported on the obstacles food system workers face in getting access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“[Vaccination] is not a substitute right now for implementing safe practices. We need both,” said Berkowitz. “It’s going to take a long time for meat and poultry companies to vaccinate all their workers … We have to prioritize vaccination and we have to keep workers six feet apart.”

Read Berkowitz’s full testimony here; Castañeda’s full testimony here; Figueroa’s full testimony here; and Rottenberg’s full testimony here.

Watch the hearing here.