DES MOINES — In late October, Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety and health expert and former senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, shared shocking statistics with the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on workers at meatpacking plants.
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“More workers have died from COVID-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the past 15 years,” she said.
Berkowitz testified at the congressional hearing following the release of a report that found more than 59,000 workers at the nation’s top meat processing companies were infected with the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic — and at least 269 workers died.
Those numbers are three times higher than previous estimates.
The report is one of the few documents that has offered some insight into the outbreaks that swept through processing facilities across much of the Midwest and nation.
But nearly two years into the pandemic, many questions about how the outbreak started and how the virus spread are still unanswered. Meanwhile, advocates are pushing for changes to improve conditions for meatpacking employees in the future.
The $200 billion meatpacking industry has been at the center of concerns over worker safety during the pandemic, and the companies involved have maintained they’ve made an effort to protect workers.
“We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars to transform our facilities with protective measures — everything from temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distance monitors, masking and our always on testing program,” said Claudia Coplein, the chief medical officer for Tyson Foods, which has plants in more than 20 states.
Gary Walters, the senior safety director at Smithfield Foods, said they’ve made many changes made under his watch, including mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, in-house testing and vaccine clinics. Smithfield Foods has about 40 plants across the country.
“We redesigned our plants, [and] in some cases even built additional facilities,” Walters said.
But the congressional report released in late October painted the companies’ responses in a different light.
Prioritizing profits over worker safety
The federal investigation concluded that the top five meat processing companies — JBS Foods, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef — could have done more to prevent worker infections and deaths.
It found that companies resisted state and federal recommendations for coronavirus precautions early in the pandemic and “prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily.”
The report also placed blame on regulators like OSHA for failing to hold companies accountable for COVID safety standards.
Following the release of the report, Smithfield Foods reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor, agreeing to make systemic changes to its health procedures and policies related to infectious diseases. As of mid-December, the other four companies highlighted in the investigation had yet to reach settlements.
At the hearing, Berkowitz said these companies failed to enact basic health precautions such as social distancing.
“What is stunning is that despite CDC recommendations to the public and businesses about using social distancing to slow the spread of COVID, the meat industry decided to thumb their noses at this first recommendation and just keep those crowded conditions in place,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican who represents eastern Iowa, pushed back against Berkowitz and the report’s findings during the hearing. Iowa is the nation’s top pork producing state.
Miller-Meeks argued that plants, like the JBS pork facility in her district, took aggressive protective measures early on. She also pointed to the impact that closing the plants had on farmers and the food supply chain.
“Do any of you know how many farmers had to euthanize their herds? Do any of you how many farmers committed suicide?” Miller-Meeks said. “Because that happened in my district when farmers had no place to take their hogs or their beef or their chickens.”
Other top Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also emphasized concerns about the food supply chain.
As COVID outbreaks swept the nation in the first half of 2020, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order meatpacking plants to stay open as critical infrastructure for the nation’s food supply chain.
Reynolds strongly supported this decision.
But COVID outbreaks still forced some plants to temporarily stop production.
During a press conference in May 2020 where Iowa health officials confirmed an outbreak at a Tyson pork processing plant that affected nearly a quarter of its workforce, Reynolds expressed concern that the state’s pork and beef industry could lose more than $2.7 billion due to short-term plant closures.
“This is devastating for Iowa farmers and producers and it will be felt at all levels,” Reynolds said. “Consumers are already seeing it at the grocery stores with higher prices of meats and limits of how much they can buy, which disproportionately affects lower-income Iowans.”
At the same time, Tyson Foods took out full page ads in the nation’s largest newspapers claiming closing its plants was “breaking” the food supply chain. The company also aired national ads that thanked frontline workers for their services, saying employee safety was the company’s priority.
The financial concerns didn’t play out. Top meatpacking companies, including Tyson, have generated record profits during the pandemic due to higher sales prices and increased consumer demand, according to federal government reports.
Reynolds has also argued that meatpacking companies and the state took the necessary measures to properly protect workers, including conducting mass testing.
‘OSHA needs to prepare for the next pandemic’
Melissa Perry, the chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, said she has many concerns over how worker safety at the plants was handled during the beginning of the pandemic.
Perry said public health officials weren’t always getting the information they needed about the outbreaks to make decisions.
“In epidemiology and public health surveillance, it’s data that you need, first and foremost, as your bedrock foundation to address any kind of outbreak or any kind of health problem, and those systems weren’t in place,” she said.
Perry said plants could have taken measures to prevent the outbreaks but continue operating, like slowing line speeds so workers could space further apart.
She said the outbreaks also highlight the need for OSHA to enact an airborne pathogen standard, which would require companies to issue protective measures preventing worker exposure to airborne pathogens, like the coronavirus.
“So much is known about how to prevent the spread of airborne pathogens,” Perry said. “It’s just a matter of the will and the organization and the consensus to implement them in plants.”
OSHA currently has a standard only for blood borne pathogens that was created in the early 1990s during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Other workers’ rights advocates echo Perry’s concerns about a severe lack of government oversight at the plants.
Mark Lauritsen, the international vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, also pointed to OSHA for failing to oversee safety at the plants. The union represents 260,000 of the nation’s meatpacking and food processing workers.
He called the agency’s oversight during the outbreaks “non-existent” and blamed leaders like Trump and Reynolds for disempowering the federal and state regulatory agencies during the pandemic.
“They were more concerned about forcing plants to stay open and doing anything they could to keep production up at the expense of, you know, infecting and ultimately killing people that work in those facilities,” Lauritsen said.
Lauritsen said OSHA should have issued an Emergency Temporary Standard, which would have created enforceable regulatory standards requiring employers to protect workers during the pandemic.
This was something echoed in the congressional report, which found that in 2020, federal OSHA issued just nine citations to three meatpacking companies with severe outbreaks — despite receiving more than 100 complaints.
This included a fine of $13,500 to a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where more than 1,300 workers were infected with COVID-19. It was the maximum allowed under federal law.
OSHA also significantly scaled back inspections in 2020.
Iowa runs its own federally-approved OSHA program under the state’s Division of Labor, which covers the state’s meatpacking plants. According to records obtained by Side Effects Public Media, Iowa OSHA conducted COVID-19 inspections in six plants where state health officials reported having outbreaks that affected more than 100 workers in spring 2020.
Iowa OSHA issued just one citation for $1,914 to an Iowa Premium beef plant for failing to keep and supply government officials with logs of work-related injuries.
“OSHA needs to prepare for the next pandemic, or the next event that takes place,” Lauritsen said. “And that doesn’t matter if it’s in health care, if it’s in meatpacking or if it’s in retail. OSHA needs to be ready, and they need to learn from this.”
Some Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have said they want to make worker safety a priority.
When Biden took office in January 2020, he immediately issued an executive order to protect worker health and safety, calling it a “national priority and moral imperative.” The order calls for a review of OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19
The Biden administration also declined to fight a March federal court ruling that struck down a Trump-era U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that allowed pork processing facilities to speed up production lines.
Unions like UFCW and workplace safety experts supported this move, saying that slower lines are safer for workers and allow them to be properly socially distanced.
However, the USDA announced in November it will allow nine pork processing facilities to increase speed lines to determine if it can boost production without endangering worker safety.
In Iowa, state Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat who’s running for governor next year, said he’s introducing legislation this session called the Workers Bill of Rights.
Smith said the bill would review Iowa OSHA standards during an infectious disease emergency and also addresses issues like minimum wage requirements for essential workers.
“We also laid out standards of what a safe working environment should look like, making sure there’s paid leave for employees who are sick because they work in close quarters and are forced to have to take time off from work,” he said.
Smith introduced a similar bill last session, but it never got a hearing in the Republican-dominated legislature.
Lauritsen, with the UFCW union, said thanks to new safety measures at plants and the availability of the vaccine, COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants are no longer happening.
In August, Tyson Foods became one of the nation’s first major employers and the only major meatpacking company to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for frontline workers. The company announced in late October that more than 96 percent of its active workforce was fully vaccinated.
Other large meatpacking companies will likely fall under the Biden administration’s requirement that companies with at least 100 employees ensure they are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or tested weekly. But whether that requirement takes effect is still uncertain.
Union leaders like Lauritsen say one silver lining from the plant outbreaks is that it brought more attention to issues like workplace safety at meat processing plants.
“It’s led to a lot more discussions about longer term fixes to the problems that were plaguing the meatpacking industry, and those discussions are going on now,” he said.
But Perry, the occupational health researcher at George Washington University, said she worries meatpacking worker safety will fall off the public’s radar as the pandemic dies down.
“I’m concerned that … the new attention won’t endure,” she said. “So I think it’s something to really emphasize and try to make the public aware of how hidden this industry is.”
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes Iowa Public Radio and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. This project was funded by USC’s Center for Health Journalism. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalie_krebs.