Critics denounce meat packing companies for lack of COVID-19 safety

Published: Apr. 29, 2020 at 3:31 PM CDT
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Supporters of processing plant employees say workers can't work at home and they need to be protected from the coronavirus when they come to the plant.

A group of organizations located across the state of Nebraska says packing house employees are afraid to go to work.

In a closed virtual news conference organizers read stories from some of the workers.

"Now, there are quite a few employees that have the virus at this time -- going to work is a risk that we are facing every day," said Cesar Garcia, a community organizer with Nebraska Appleseed.

"The story of a grandchild losing their grandmother after contracting COVID-19 through their grandpa who still works at the plant," said Gladys Godinez with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lexington.

Organizers say the meatpacking companies are not doing enough to protect the workers from the virus.

Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer in the world. Some of its plants are located throughout Nebraska.

Smithfield issued a statement responding to what it calls misinformation about the company. In it they say they, "Are doing everything in their power to help protect our team members from COVID-19," including adding hand sanitizing stations, boosting personal protective equipment, and installing physical barriers.

The company also says, "During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation's food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It is an awful choice. It's not one we wish on anyone."

But supporters of the workers want more and think ethnicity could be to blame for the company’s reaction.

"Who is working in that meatpacking plant? You all know -- our immigrants, people of color, our refugees," said Sergio Sosa, executive director for the Heartland Workers Center.

"And I want to remind you that we are human beings, we are not just immigrants. We are human beings," Sosa added.

Smithfield denies that, saying, "We proudly provide an opportunity for thousands of employees, many of whom have come to our country in pursuit of the American dream."

Officials from Nebraska Appleseed say processing plant workers are being asked to risk their health, safety, and lives without protection on their jobs.

“People working in meat and poultry plants continue to be forced to work shoulder-to-shoulder without critical protection and they are getting sicker and sicker as a result,” said Appleseed Executive Director Becky Gould. “This is a critical risk for Nebraska's workforce, community health, and food production.”

6 News reached out to officials at Tyson Foods. They responded with a statement that reads in part, "Tyson Foods formed a coronavirus task force in January and has implemented numerous measures to protect workers, including relaxing attendance policies to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick."