Long Overdue COVID Worker Protections Would Still Save Hundreds of Lives

January 15, 2021 | 11:57 am
Photo: vodograj/shutterstock
Sarah Reinhardt
Former Contributor

When President-elect Biden takes office next week, his fledgling team must begin to right a mountain of wrongs as the pandemic continues to rage. The previous administration’s nearly endless list of failures and sabotage has brought about many injustices, and among them is the dire situation of workers in the nation’s meat and poultry industries. These essential workers have faced life-threatening conditions, with few or no safeguards, for the duration of the COVID crisis.

The COVID relief proposal released yesterday by the president-elect would be a good start. In addition to expanding paid sick and family medical leave and emergency paid leave, the proposal calls for a new COVID-19 Protection Standard (also known as a Emergency Temporary Standard) that would provide enforceable requirements to reduce on-the-job exposure to COVID-19, including physical distancing, mask requirements, and adequate ventilation.

For many meat and poultry workers who have been working under life-threatening conditions for the duration of the pandemic, these protections will come too late. More than 50,000 workers in this industry have now contracted COVID and at least 250 have died, though actual numbers may be much higher than those reported.

Many of these deaths could have been prevented if meat and poultry companies and government regulators had taken decisive action early on, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had urged back in May 2020. And as new UCS analysis described below shows, many other lives still hang in the balance. Without adequate protections, current trends suggest that more than 45,500 more meat and poultry processing workers will contract COVID-19, resulting in at least 165 additional deaths. Ensuring that these long overdue protections are put in place—and that essential food and farm workers are among the first in line to receive vaccines—will save lives now and set an important precedent for prioritizing worker safety in the face of future crises.

Under-regulated companies put many thousands of workers at risk…

As my colleague Karen Perry Stillerman wrote last month, meat and poultry companies like Tyson Foods have willingly and routinely risked the health of their workers during the pandemic, ignoring public health protocols and forcing workers to show up even as plants became the source of some of the worst outbreaks in the country. In one particularly cruel display of negligence, managers at Tyson’s Waterloo pork plant even organized a betting pool around how many plant employees would contract the virus. These actions, or lack thereof, carried grave consequences for human life.

To date, there have been more than 52,000 infections among these workers, indicating that infection rates in these plants have become even worse than we originally predicted back in May 2020, several months into the pandemic. These 52,000 workers represent 10.4 percent of all meat and poultry plant workers in the United States—meaning meat and poultry workers have been infected at rates 1.5 times those of the general population. (For context, an estimated 6.9 percent of the US population has been infected with COVID-19 to date.)

…but new protections could still save lives

Based on current trends, a UCS team led by economist Rebecca Boehm now estimates that between 45,500 and 61,000 more meat and poultry processing workers will contract COVID-19, resulting in between 165 and 200 additional deaths, absent additional safety protections or worker vaccinations. We produced this estimate by taking the average cases per plant in which outbreaks have been reported—using data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN)—and projecting that average to remaining plants in which outbreaks have not yet been reported.

Importantly, infection rates among meat and poultry workers vary substantially across states. The table below shows the 10 states with the highest number of cases reported at meatpacking plants and highlights the percent of total meat and poultry processing workers who have been infected.

Of course, differences by state could be due in part to differences in policies and reporting, and these numbers may grossly underestimate actual COVID cases and deaths across the board. Recent reporting by the Des Moines Register described the “hands-off approach” taken by the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which has failed to inspect more than a third of the 65 meatpacking plants where reporters have identified COVID-related deaths.

Perhaps most importantly, the Des Moines Register highlights the striking racial disparities in COVID cases that are the direct result of longstanding exploitation of immigrants and people of color employed in this industry:

“It isn’t just how many died, but who. The U.S. meatpacking industry has long relied on vulnerable populations to fill its workforce: immigrants, refugees, people of color, and those who lack other employment opportunities. During its last data release in July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 87% of coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants occurred among racial or ethnic minorities.”

COVID cases and deaths in meat plants were predictable and preventable

Hindsight may be 20/20, but we had plenty of foresight in 2020 too. It wasn’t difficult to predict what would happen when workers—many of whom already lacked adequate sick leave and health insurance—were forced to work in close quarters with few safeguards as a highly contagious virus spread across the globe.

Worker advocacy groups had also been ringing the alarm for months. Recent interviews with 90 Chicago-area workers in food production, distribution, and logistics conducted by Warehouse Workers for Justice and the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative in conjunction with Temp Worker Justice revealed widespread trends of employer negligence and retaliation when workers raised COVID concerns. Of the workers interviewed, 65 percent had either gotten sick from COVID or knew a coworker who had. Eleven percent of those interviewed knew of a coworker who had died from the virus. A vast majority who got sick received neither paid sick leave nor government assistance, and nearly half of all employees interviewed said they received no new training or information about safety precautions during the pandemic.

Protections for these workers could extend beyond an Emergency Temporary Standard. If Congress passes the Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, legislation introduced by Senators Tammy Baldwin and Tammy Duckworth, OSHA would also be required to issue a permanent safety standard to protect workers against future pandemics and prevent retaliation for reporting infection control problems in the workplace. And even before the pandemic, many worker advocacy groups have been asking for basic rights afforded to many workers in other sectors, such as paid sick leave. But even when such protections are included in stimulus packages, they aren’t guaranteed to reach all of the workers who need them, including undocumented workers, those working and living in isolated farms and packing houses, workers in the informal economy (like street vendors) and temp and gig workers, and it remains to be seen how president-elect Biden’s proposal will address each. Suzanne Adely, Co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of dozens of worker-based organizations representing more than 375,000 food workers, knows all too well how often these groups are left out. “It’s imperative that health and safety policies—including vaccines, expanded sick leave, health and safety committees, and federal or local OSHA standards—don’t forget or deliberately abandon any of these workers.”

Now, will vaccines reach vulnerable workers?

The federal government has made broad recommendations about who should be vaccinated when, though states get to make the final call about how they distribute vaccines to their residents. According to CDC guidelines, food and agricultural workers and other frontline essential workers should join people 75 and older to receive the vaccine in phase 1b, right behind healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities. But comments from some state leaders have cast doubt on whether all such workers would receive it quickly enough—or at all. Earlier this month, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts seemed to suggest that immigrants employed at meatpacking plants would not qualify for the vaccine, later clarifying that those without legal status may receive the vaccine, but only after other workers.

Among the states with the greatest number of infected meatpacking workers (see table above), all have outlined plans for vaccine distribution, and a majority are in rough alignment with CDC guidance. However, there is variation between state approaches—and even small deviations could make a big difference in the case of vaccine delays or shortages. Arkansas, South Dakota, and Texas have all assigned lower priority to meatpacking workers than CDC guidance recommends; in Arkansas and South Dakota, this is because state health departments have effectively split CDC phase 1b into multiple groups. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of State Health Services has not yet addressed food and agricultural workers in its vaccine distribution plan, which instead prioritizes those with chronic medical conditions associated with greater COVID risk.

Pandemic or not, protecting essential food workers is a priority

While threats to worker health and safety are particularly salient in the midst of a global pandemic, the millions of people working to put food on our table deserve safe conditions and fair wages all the time. As we have written previously, the food chain, including food production, processing, distribution, retail, and service, is the largest employment sector in the country, employing more than 21 million people. That’s more than one out of every seven US workers. Yet according to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, workers across the food chain receive the lowest hourly median wage of any major industry, with significant wage gaps by race and gender. Meanwhile, high rates of injury make the food chain one of the most dangerous sectors in which to work.

The persistent exploitation of workers, and in particular those who work to produce the food we eat, is perfectly in keeping with the America that many of its Black and brown residents know. As UCS’s Ricardo Salvador noted in a recent interview, “Our food system is very much modeled on plantation economics.” But it doesn’t have to be. The Biden administration appears poised to take a small but significant step in the right direction by implementing better health and safety protections for millions of essential workers right now, and we’ll be calling on Congress to follow.