(Shutterstock image)
(Shutterstock image)

Low-wage, frequently Latino workers, are forced to risk their health

Employees at meatpacking giant JBS’ Green Bay plant are gaining friends in high places as national advocacy groups and Sen. Tammy Baldwin call for change in an industry that has seen massive outbreaks in facilities around the country.

More than 700 Wisconsin food processing employees have tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 10,000 meatpackers have the virus nationwide, and 45 have died. At least 290 employees at JBS Packerland in Green Bay had tested positive as of last week, but both Brown County and the company are refusing to release new numbers. It is believed to be the largest single-facility outbreak in the state, and another local meat plant, American Foods Group, also had over 200 confirmed cases.

Early progress has been good, at least in Wisconsin. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Milwaukee-based advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, said all worker safety demands have now been met at AFG and JBS in Green Bay. Those demands included additional masks, paid sick leave, and proper social distancing in workspaces.

But the outbreaks in Green Bay and elsewhere still illustrate how the pandemic is disportionately affecting low-wage, minority workers who are more likely to work “essential” jobs

“Meatpacking plants have long been places where workers have endured grueling and hazardous conditions at the hands of corporations that have put profit over people and a government that perpetuates its harm instead of intervening,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, in a Tuesday call with reporters.

At meatpacking facilities, workers stand close together on a line for hours on end. One American Foods Group employee, Filiberto Reyes-Martinez, told reporters last week that the work is so intense, workers frequently sweat through their personal protective equipment, and the sweat simply falls onto the meat. He said workers are not given replacement PPE during a shift.

After Reyes-Martinez raised concerns, he was sent home and never told when he could return to work, he said.

“There are many people being silent, but we have the right to speak out,” said Guadalupe Paez, a Green Bay JBS employee who tested positive for coronavirus, during the press call with Hincapié.

Paez said the company refused to believe he was sick and insisted it was just a cold.

“I was angry at how I was treated,” he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating COVID-related complaints at at least nine Wisconsin meatpacking plants, a spokesperson confirmed last week. Another 65 investigations are ongoing at other Wisconsin employers.

“For many years, workers have gone to work in extraordinarily dangerous conditions,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “And we know that when employers and the government can hold the threat of deportation above workers’ heads, or when workers fear losing their jobs and income if they speak up, they’re less likely to report dangerous conditions.”

On Wednesday, Baldwin issued a letter to the CEOs of JBS, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield Foods — three of the largest meatpacking companies in the country — taking the companies to task for alleged failures to protect workers from infection. She requested information about how they are protecting workers and demanded they follow official Centers for Disease Control guidelines to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

“I write today with grave concerns about disturbing reports of unsafe working conditions and facilities failing to follow recommended safety guidelines,” the Democratic Wisconsin senator wrote. “This unwillingness to implement recommended safety precautions in a timely manner has led to death and the spread of illness from COVID-19 that was preventable.”

JBS has at least 2,000 infections and 11 deaths tied to its U.S. facilities, according to analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism. 

Smithfield has more than 1,000 cases and at least three deaths, according to the center. Eighty-six employees at the Smithfield Patrick Cudahy plant near Milwaukee had tested positive for coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to a City of Cudahy press release.

Thousands more are tied to Tyson, which has no plants in Wisconsin. Sixteen Tyson employees have died, according to the center.

“Employer and government inaction is having needlessly cruel and devastating consequences on the lives of workers and their families, and in turn, this will have an impact on our food supply and overall health,” Hincapié said.