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Last week, after at least 26 workers at its Worthington, Minnesota, pork processing plant tested positive for COVID-19, JBS USA announced that it was idling the plant. Now, a handful of workers are speaking out about conditions there.

According to six employees who spoke to reporters during an online press conference organized by local activists, the plant could have taken steps earlier to prevent the outbreak and protect workers. The employees declined to share their names out of fear of retaliation from their employer. 

The plant, which is owned by a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS, one of the largest meat processors in the world, employs primarily new Americans.

One woman, speaking Spanish through an interpreter, regretted that the company did not encourage her to take time off after she told human resources personnel that she had come into contact with a coworker who tested positive for the virus. She said the HR official downplayed the seriousness of her complaint when she cited stomach pain as her only potential COVID-19 symptom.

“They just said go back to work,” the woman said. “And if I left [work], I was going to get points deducted. And so I just continued working.”

By “points,” she was referring to a system at JBS where every time an employee comes in late or takes a sick day without a doctor’s note, they are given a point. When they rack up eight points, the workers explained, they can face consequences, including being fired. The woman said she worked through Saturday, April 18—the same day she found out that she tested positive for COVID-19.

Now, she’s worried that she may have exposed her coworkers to the virus. “With the situation, I’m very frustrated because I think we could have avoided where we’re at right now,” the woman said. “The measures they took were taken too late.”

Cameron Bruett, a spokesperson for JBS, denied that the company punishes workers for calling in sick. “No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” Bruett wrote in an email. “If someone is sick or lives with someone who is sick, we send them home.”

Bruett added, “The health and safety of our team members remains our number one priority.” 

Two days after the female worker tested positive, and on the heels of at least 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the plant, JBS announced it would close the Worthington facility temporarily and continue paying its workers for the equivalent of 32 hours per week and offering benefits. The company is also offering free virus testing to employees.

The closure came one week after Smithfield Foods announced it would close its nearby Sioux Falls, South Dakota, meatpacking facility following what became one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation. At the Smithfield plant, at least 783 workers have tested positive for the virus. 

These plants aren’t alone. In the past month, meatpacking facilities across the country have been hard hit by COVID-19, prompting closures of plants in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, among other states. While putting a large portion of the country’s immediate meat supply in question, the infection rate in these virus hotspots also begs the question: Why is the virus spreading so rapidly at meatpacking facilities, and what does this mean for the safety of meatpackers in good times and bad?

Peter Rachleff, a labor historian who is co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, cited these outbreaks as the culmination of deteriorating working conditions at meatpacking plants over the past 50 years.

“It’s the motherf*cker of capitalism,” Rachleff said. “That’s the quandary that decent, hard-working people are trapped in, and I think that’s part of what this virus is revealing.”

1980s Hormel strike marked ‘turning point’

In particular, Rachleff points to the infamous failed strike of Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, in the mid-1980s as an industry turning point that facilitated a “race to the bottom” in meatpacking working conditions. In the strike’s aftermath, the industry saw continual growth in production and profits for multinational conglomerates like Smithfield, which is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group.

In 1985, 1,500 Austin-based plant workers under United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 went on strike after Hormel imposed a 23 percent pay cut—from an hourly wage of $10.69 to $8.25—after seven years of pay freezes.

Rachleff, then a history professor at Macalester College, at the time chaired a Twin Cities-based solidarity group aligned with P-9 workers. He would go on to write a book about the struggle in 1993 called Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.

The strike went on for months and gathered national attention, but Hormel and the union could never come to an agreement. Five months into the strike, roughly one-third of the workers crossed the picket line while Hormel went outside to hire 500 additional workers at slashed wages.

“It’s the motherf*cker of capitalism. That’s the quandary that decent, hard-working people are trapped in, and I think that’s part of what this virus is revealing.”

Peter Rachleff, a labor historian.

By the summer of 1986, the union capitulated. Hormel, on the other hand, continued marching forward. The company would offer jobs to only roughly 20 percent of its remaining striking employees and, by the end of the decade, lease half of the plant to a company hiring workers at an even lower wage of $6.50 per hour. 

The rate of meat production dramatically increased while working conditions worsened, according to Rachleff, prompting a large share of Hormel’s workers who replaced the strikers to quit. Up to this point, most of the company’s meatpackers were white and from the Midwest. This changed in the 1990s, as the company turned to hiring immigrant workers, mostly from Mexico, to fill the plant. 

“The worse the work became, the more the workforce became predominantly immigrant, whether they were unionized or not,” Rachleff said.

By recruiting immigrants from countries like Mexico—where there are fewer economic opportunities for the average worker—meatpacking companies dipped into a population willing to take on the increasingly backbreaking work at lower wages. 

This willingness benefitted an industry looking for employees. According to a 2018 study of labor trends in the pork industry, commissioned by the National Pork Producers Council, as the pool of native-born workers in rural parts of the country shrunk and aged, meat plants relied more heavily on foreign-born workers. “The aging rural workforce that remains is increasingly unable and unwilling to do the strenuous labor that agricultural work demands,” according to the report.

“Immigrant labor in animal agriculture is a more recent phenomenon, becoming increasingly important as demand for workers increased dramatically as the scale of livestock and poultry production increased,” added the report.

As pork processing plants ramped up production, employees were required to work more quickly to serve an ever-more-globalized industry and marketplace. At the same time, many of the facilities changed hands and became parts of multinational companies.

The history of the JBS plant in Worthington lines up with Rachleff’s hypothesis. When it opened in 1964, the plant was owned by Armour and employed 375 mostly-local workers who processed 5,000 hogs a day, according to a 2014 Worthington Daily Globe article. Fifty years later, the workforce at that same plant had ballooned to 2,200 employees processing 20,800 hogs a day.

As the plant changed, so did the city’s demographics. In 1990, Worthington was 94 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with Latinos comprising just over 2 percent of residents. By 2018, the Latino population in Worthington had grown to 42 percent, with an additional 10 percent identifying as Asian.

In the Globe article, a JBS official described innovations and new labor practices that made the dramatic increase in production at the plant possible. The official cited the introduction of double-shifting in the 1980s—or having meatpackers work two full shifts in a row—and the quick chill, which allows workers to slaughter pigs on the same day they’re killed.

But it’s these very conditions that Worthington meatpackers say made their workplace a hot spot for COVID-19 to spread.

“It’s like rubbing elbow to elbow,” he said. “You can’t avoid it because that’s how we work.” 

meatpacker at JBS USA.

‘A domino effect’ 

During the recent online press conference with a handful of JBS employees, one male meatpacker who described himself as an immigrant from southeast Asia explained that his work days consist of switching between loading meat onto a conveyor belt and bagging meat. He said both jobs need to be done by two people working physically close together. 

“It’s like rubbing elbow to elbow,” he said. “You can’t avoid it because that’s how we work.” 

Social distancing is even difficult during lunch breaks, according to another male worker who spoke Spanish through an interpreter. 

Another male worker, speaking in Spanish, said that JBS gave employees large plastic sheets to hang between them while they ate lunch. But he explained that the company didn’t provide these sheets until two days before announcing it would close the plant temporarily. 

Bruett, speaking for JBS, cited a litany of measures that he said the company has taken at its plants across the country since COVID-19 began to spread in the U.S. earlier this year. They include providing masks to employees, increasing cleaning efforts, requiring sick workers to stay home, and promoting social distancing practices. 

“We will endeavor to keep our facilities open to help feed the nation,” he wrote in an email, “but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe.”

The workers, however, described the company’s measures as too little, too late. All who spoke during the press conference were in agreement that the plant should have temporarily shut down sooner—particularly when COVID-19 cases in Sioux Falls grew out of hand. (The union that represents the plant workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, has called for slowed production when the plant reopens.)

Sioux Falls is just a one-hour drive from Worthington and serves as a hub where people flock to shop for groceries and other goods. Also, some meat plant workers who live in Worthington commute to work in Sioux Falls and vice versa. Some even live together and are in the same families, the workers explained. JBS should have taken note of these factors, they argued.

“There are already workers in JBS that commute from Sioux Falls, and they should have gotten tested right away,” the Spanish-speaking female worker said. 

“It only takes one person testing positive,” said the worker from southeast Asia. “It’s like a domino effect.”

The future remains unclear

Some JBS employees want the company to meet a handful of demands before reopening, according to Nekessa Opoti, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective, one of the groups working with Worthington meatpackers. 

They include following through with $4-an-hour raises that Opoti and others say the company announced right before the pandemic; working with the union to establish a mutual fund that can support employees with basics like food delivery through the pandemic; hiring two bilingual community liaisons who can support workers staying home during the pandemic; and scheduling a joint meeting between JBS corporate leaders, union leaders, and workers to discuss needs.

JBS hasn’t determined when it will reopen the Worthington plant, according to Bruett. But it may be sooner rather than later. The company reopened a Greeley, Colorado, beef processing plant just nine days after shutting it down due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

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Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...