Sure, the meatpacking plants are now slightly less horrible than they were before COVID-19 forced the industry to make slight changes so their workers didn’t get sick and die. But those changes are minor, probably temporary, and often aren’t enough even right now to keep workers safe.
It’s been three weeks since President Donald Trump’s executive order to keep meat plants running in the pandemic and the government began preparing fresh guidance on how to keep their employees safe. Infections are still on the rise as workers say they’re being forced to put themselves in harm’s way in the name of food security.
Based on 13 interviews with employees, labor representatives and a U.S. government inspector at meat plants in states including Arkansas, Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina and Texas, employees are still standing elbow-to-elbow along production lines. There are some plastic barriers, but employees haven’t been spaced out in parts of the plants. People with symptoms are still coming in for shifts, afraid of losing income if they call in sick. Protective gear in some cases is of low quality — thin masks are breaking. With not enough distance between people, the combination could be ripe for the spread of disease.
Companies have taken measures such as increasing hand-washing stations, distributing face shields, doing temperature checks and staggering breaks. But experts warn that in the end, nothing can make up for a lack of physical distance. And some are starting to question whether it’s even possible to run these plants safely during the pandemic, given the nature of how production is handled.
“They’re still working shoulder to shoulder, and these partitions are not even proven to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Magaly Licolli, executive director at Springdale, Arkansas-based Venceremos, an organization focused on human rights of poultry workers. Companies have “basically refused to restructure workstations, since that would decrease production. But that’s what they need to do to prevent an outbreak.”
Forcing people to labor in these plants in unsafe conditions is why Mitch McConnell is pushing so far to protect employers from liability if their workers get sick or die. It was so American for Trump to finally act strongly on production when his well-done steak was threatened. This nation doesn’t care about meatpackers and never has cared about meatpackers. And when this goes away, it will go back to not caring about meatpackers. And yet this job is a horror show at the best of times. It does not have to be this way. But we are going to have to force the companies to change. Luckily, we have that diehard opponent of neoliberalism Donald Trump and the King of Outflanking Josh Hawley in the government to see this through…..