At least 59,000 meatpacking workers contracted the coronavirus in the first year of the pandemic as the virus rapidly spread in plants’ cramped conditions, according to internal documents from five major meat conglomerates obtained by a U.S. House subcommittee investigating the coronavirus response.
The panel’s findings offer greater detail on the virus’ toll among a largely immigrant workforce that managers implored to keep showing up for work as much of the rest of the country shut down, often in massive plants that employ hundreds or thousands of people working elbow-to-elbow along fast-moving production lines. At least 269 meatpacking workers at the five companies died from Covid-19 between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1 the following year, the panel reported on Wednesday.
The report by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis cites interviews with staff members of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration saying that leaders of the agency made “a political decision” in 2020 during the Trump administration not to issue a regulatory standard that would have required meatpacking companies to take specific steps to protect workers.
The committee staff cited examples of individual plants where infection rates soared as high as 54% of the workforce at JBS SA’s facility in Hyrum, Utah, and 50% at Tyson Foods Inc.’s plant in Amarillo, Texas.
At the Amarillo plant, employees as late as May 2, 2020, were working in masks “saturated” with sweat and other fluids and separated only by flimsy “plastic bags on frames” rather than barriers, according to memo from local and federal authorities to Tyson obtained by the subcommittee.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued in September pointed to the closer working conditions in meatpacking plants than other U.S. manufacturing facilities as a likely reason the industry became an early epicenter of the pandemic. The 49 rural U.S. counties most dependent on meatpacking plants for employment had Covid infection rates 10 times the level of other manufacturing-dependent rural counties in May 2020, the USDA found.
The subcommittee’s coronavirus findings were based on internal documents from JBS, Tyson, Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., and National Beef Inc.
The totals are likely an undercount since in many cases they don’t include Covid infections detected through off-site tests or cases self-reported by employees, the committee staff said.
Tyson spent more than $810 million to address the coronavirus pandemic with personal protective equipment, social distancing measures, additional benefits for team members and a boost in medical staff, spokesman Gary Mickelson said. The company likely tested more people than anyone in the country during the height of the pandemic, and has since done more than any other in the industry to vaccinate its workforce, he said.
JBS USA invested more than $760 million in its pandemic response, the company said in a statement, pointing to hundreds of safety measures that often outpaced federal guidance and industry standards. The corporation covers 100% of Covid-related worker healthcare costs and conducted more than 80,000 surveillance tests to date, the statement said.
Cargill said in a statement that the company worked to maintain safe and consistent operations and didn’t hesitate to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at plants when necessary. The corporation said that its operations meet or exceed the federal government’s health and safety standards issued for processors and that it hosted several federal agencies for tours.
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