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Meat Packers Question New COVID-19 Safety Guidelines


Thousands of meatpacking workers are being ordered back to work. This follows an executive order from the president last week. This is the case even in plants that have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 and where some workers are reluctant to return. Christina Stella from member station NET has been talking to workers.

CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: In the small eastern Nebraska town of Crete, 2,000 people process cows and pigs at a sprawling Smithfield Foods plant. That's roughly a third of the town. And some workers say the fear of going to work every day is beginning to overwhelm them. At least 48 workers at this plant are now sick with COVID. And after another anxious week, including a walkout, a few dozen workers got together at an abandoned downtown lot on Saturday to protest working conditions. David Desi Macias Jr. has worked at this plant for 11 years.

DAVID DESI MACIAS JR: It's terrible to see these people suffer, so many people suffer. And I'm here to support all my co-workers and to let them know all of us workers, our lives matter.

STELLA: He says he was sick with COVID for two weeks and gave it to his entire family. He wants the plant to close and scrub down everything.

MACIAS: All I'm looking for is a three-to-five-day shutdown to clean and sanitize. They say safety is No. 1 and they care about us. Then show us.

STELLA: Macias Jr. joined a line of cars snaking toward the Smithfield complex, where even more people, some who just clocked out, hoisted themselves out of their sunroofs, waving homemade signs, one saying pigs won't be the only ones dying. In recent statements, Smithfield Foods has called its COVID-19 policies robust, highlighting protective gear, symptom screening and paid sick leave. But Yesenia Regalado, whose family works at the plant, worries that the company waited too long.

YESENIA REGALADO: My mom only gets a shield that covers her face. And at work she's, like, right next to her co-workers. I don't see how that's safe.

STELLA: According to union representatives, those face shields are designed to be single use. But workers here only get one per week. And they scratch easily, making it hard for them to see where their hands are while cutting up meat.

REGALADO: We wake up every single day, see our parents head to work. And I get it. Our parents are essential, but they're not dispensable.

STELLA: The plant was slated to close for cleaning last week. Then, only hours after employees were emailed about the closure, Smithfield reversed course. Meatpacking workers across the country complained that their companies haven't always been clear about how COVID-19 is impacting their plants.

One woman at a central Nebraska Cargill plant, who asks that we not use her name for fear of retribution, says a recent mix-up has put her family's financial survival on the line. Management sent her home after she was coughing at work. She wasn't tested, but her doctor told her she did not have COVID. When she returned, HR told her she had exceeded her COVID sick time and lost four days of pay. And now she worries that if she actually gets sick, she won't be able to provide for her five children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We did have to cut back into my savings to actually make it through the week. And now I have nothing. We don't want to take it home to our families, but we can't go without a paycheck either. We wash our hands so many times a day, I think my hands are honestly cracking.

STELLA: Eric Reeder, who runs local 293 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says addressing labor disputes is typically a drawn-out process. But in a pandemic, those conversations take new urgency. Nationwide, 25 workers have already died with at least 5,000 getting sick.

ERIC REEDER: I don't have the luxury of filing a grievance and waiting for a resolution two months down the road.

STELLA: Reeder did hope the new OSHA guidelines would force plants to do more for workers. But he says they mostly encourage companies to screen for symptoms, expand sick leave and distance workers.

REEDER: Instead, they've made it mandatory for these workers to go to work and voluntary for the OSHA protections, which is just like putting a match to a powder keg.

STELLA: Mark Lauritsen runs UFCW's national meatpacking division. He worries about his workers and those who aren't members of a union.

MARK LAURITSEN: In the non-union settings, it's going to be a signal to run your plants however you want to run them. And there'll be no liability at all.

STELLA: In the meantime, thousands of meatpacking workers at this Smithfield plant are working only half days and are in the position of using yesterday's disposable mask to process today's cattle and pigs. Christina Stella, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christina Stella

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