New report outlines meatpacking facility failures to protect workers during COVID

Meatpacking plants were some of the hardest hit when it came to the spread of COVID-19.
Published: May. 12, 2022 at 8:59 PM CDT|Updated: May. 12, 2022 at 9:01 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Meatpacking plants were some of the hardest hit when it came to the spread of COVID-19. In the first year of the pandemic alone, dozens of Nebraska meatpacking plant workers died.

Now, a new congressional report shows that top officials worked with the previous administration to keep them open, despite internally acknowledging an ongoing risk.

That report done by a bipartisan committee dug into the response of five of the top meat producers in the nation. This includes places that have facilities in Nebraska like JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield. It shows despite thousands of cases reported and ongoing deaths, many looked to work around or ignore COVID protocol altogether.

It also outlined case numbers at meatpacking plants. In the first year of the pandemic between the five biggest meatpacking plant producers, 59,000 employees were infected, and at least 269 died. It also states that meatpacking plants had driven so much community spread they were associated with up to 8% of all U.S. cases.

“Workers should never be deprioritized or put in a situation that this report very clearly states that there was an aggressive narrative to keep the plants open that was really undermining workers and worker safety,” said State Senator Tony Vargas.

Vargas has been a loud proponent of more protections for workers in these types of facilities in Nebraska. He called the report unsurprising.

“There’s nothing that we can do to make up for what’s happened. These last two years taught us that it wasn’t just meatpacking plants it was frontline workers, it was healthcare workers,” Vargas said.

The report states that claims of a potential for a meat shortage in 2020 were also false. It cited statements from industry representatives describing the idea as “intentionally scaring people” and “whipping everyone into a frenzy.” When meatpacking industry representatives looked into where any actual shortages were occurring, they were unable to find any.

“Never be based on whether large corporations are going to be making bigger or better profits, we need to stand up for worker pay and working conditions,” Vargas said.

Despite no meat shortage in April of 2020, the Trump Administration issued an executive order to essentially keep plants open. Which the report said was drafted by the legal departments of Smithfield and Tyson.

Many of the companies mentioned in the report issued statements saying employee safety was never compromised.

A spokesperson for Smithfield said the company spent just shy of a billion dollars on safety improvements during COVID. Saying in part: “Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”

The report also shows that representatives from meatpacking facilities successfully lobbied the USDA for a few different items. Including adding policies that got rid of employee benefits if they chose to stay home or quit.

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