***For Immediate Release***
Thursday, August 13, 2020
New national report highlights need for urgent protections in meat and poultry plants
A new Oxfam America report features interviews with dozens of workers nationwide who cite dangerous practices in plants, as thousands of workers continue to contract COVID-19
Lincoln, NE— A new national report Disposable by Oxfam America highlights the dangerously inadequate safety measures in nationwide poultry plants that continue to put workers, their families and communities at risk, echoing the experience of Nebraska meat and poultry workers. The report, which includes interviews from workers in multiple states, highlights three specific failures by the meat and poultry industry to protect workers from contracting COVID-19: limited access to paid sick time, lack of social distancing on the processing line, and failure to provide important information to workers about infections and fatalities and safety procedures in appropriate languages.
“For the last several months, we have experienced the devastating impacts COVID-19 has had on workers in meat and poultry facilities – our family members and neighbors – across our state. We have seen outbreaks in communities throughout Nebraska due to a lack of protections for essential workers, and this report underscores that the experience is the same in other states,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, Immigrants & Communities Program Director with Nebraska Appleseed. “Nearly 5,000 Nebraska meatpacking workers have tested positive since the pandemic began. As of August 4, at least 21 meat and poultry workers have died and hundreds have been hospitalized in Nebraska. We must ensure essential workers have clear and enforceable essential protections.”
The latest figures indicate at least 40,000 meatpacking workers nationwide have fallen ill due to COVID-19 and nearly 200 have died, including more than 20 deaths in Nebraska. This does not reflect the number of family and community members who have also been infected by sick workers.
Workers interviewed for the report expressed mounting fear over a range of insufficient safety measures in plants including failure by companies to report infections or deaths to workers or the community, no social distancing on the line or during breaks, lack of appropriate masks or gloves provided, no sanitizing of facilities if positive infections have been reported, nor slowing of the production line — nearly identical to the experiences shared by Nebraska workers in a Nebraska Legislature hearing last week.
Also concerning is the absence of paid sick time for non-union workers which forces people already living on the financial edge to work while sick.
“People should not be forced to choose between going to work sick or getting a paycheck. Now we have a highly transmissible infectious disease that has killed more than 150,000 people just in the US. And we’re still having conversations about paid sick leave. It isn’t something that should even be debated; it should be mandated,” said Dr. Celeste Anne Monforton with the Department of Health & Human Performance at Texas State University.
According to the report, few if any non-unionized workers reported access to paid sick leave. While some companies provide two-week sick time for COVID-19 cases only, they require proof of infection, leading workers to attend work despite signs of infection while awaiting results. And sick time coverage is rescinded if a test is negative.
Nebraska meat and poultry workers in communities across the state have been sharing similar concerns about plant conditions. As one worker shared at the Nebraska Legislature hearing last week:
“I work at a packing plant in Hastings. At the beginning they did not give importance to COVID-19 and many of us were infected. The plant started taking measures very late. I got COVID from the company and then my family was infected as well….The line runs just as fast with a pandemic or without a pandemic. These meat processing plants don’t only kill animals, they are also killing workers. My fear is that if we’re not keeping proper distance while working on the line, we could get infected again.”
Additionally, companies have been offering incentives to encourage workers not to stay home. The report notes at least two companies offered $500 attendance bonuses for a month for perfect attendance, and one plant in Texas offers an extra dollar an hour for a week of no days missed — an experience also reported by Nebraska packing plant workers.
According to workers interviewed for the report, when they or their colleagues do contract COVID-19, they are often not informed about infections or deaths — another experience shared by Nebraska workers.
One Maryland woman told Oxfam that her 44-year-old husband, Miska Jean Baptiste, did not realize he’d contracted Covid-19 when he began to run a high fever. She says the local plant checked workers’ temperatures when they arrived, but didn’t inform her husband about his fever, and instead, gave him ice cream to reduce the reading.
After four days of attending work unaware of his illness, Jean Baptiste went to the doctors and registered a 105-degree fever. He passed away alone in a hospital several days later.
“The company said he was on vacation when he was in the hospital. Usually when someone passes away, they have a TV, they put up a picture–but when my husband passed, they didn’t do it, they don’t want people to know,” says Jean Baptiste’s widow, who did not want to be identified.
Workers reported to Oxfam that the plants they work for have not spaced out people on the line, nor slowed the production line, or changed workers’ shifts. While some plants have installed plexiglass shields or sheets of plastic in locations including break room tables and on the line, experts agree that shields provide little protection while workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, often face-to-face in inadequately ventilated air.
“Workers are alarmed at new signs that the poultry industry has begun to rescind some of the cursory protective measures they made at the start of the pandemic,” said Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s US Domestic Programs. “With this health crisis far from over, the industry must finally prioritize people over profits and make substantive changes in order to save lives.”
Oxfam’s report calls on the meat and poultry industry to end its practice of “business as usual,” and commit once and for all to three clear changes to protect the health and well-being of its workforce — changes that Nebraska statewide organizations have been calling for as well: provide paid sick leave to workers (not contingent upon proof of positive Covid-19 test); implement social distancing throughout the plant, especially on the processing line; and communicate with workers and the community about incidents of infection and death, while also providing safety information in appropriate languages.
Notes to Editors:
- For several years, Oxfam has been working with a poultry worker justice coalition that includes worker centers, unions, advocates, experts, and academics. In the effort to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has been impacting the people who work in poultry processing plants, we reached out to some of these communities, and conducted dozens of interviews. We talked to workers from several countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Laos, Haiti), across various states and companies.
- This brief is possible due to Oxfam partners who engage with poultry workers and are part of their communities. The following workers centers provided worker testimonies and insight into conditions in the poultry plants: Centro de Derechos Laborales in Bryan, TX; Rebirth Inc. in Salisbury, MD; Western North Carolina Workers’ Centers; Martha Ojeda from Interfaith Worker Justice provided technical assistance and support for the worker engagement in poultry communities.
Nebraska Appleseed is a nonprofit organization that fights for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans. We take a systemic approach to complex issues – such as child welfare, immigration policy, affordable health care and poverty – and we take our work wherever we believe we can do the most good, whether that’s in the courthouse, at the Capitol, or in the community. Learn more: neappleseed.org
Oxfam is a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty. We help people build better futures for themselves, hold the powerful accountable, and save lives in disasters. Our mission is to tackle the root causes of poverty and create lasting solutions. Join us: oxfamamerica.org.