Across Nebraska, Meatpacking Workers Struggle Amid a 'Hodgepodge' of COVID-19 Policies

(Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)
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April 27, 2020 - 5:45am

President Trump has signed an executive order to shore up the country’s meat production amid concerns about worker safety at meatpacking plants. The mandate will keep beef, poultry, pork and egg processors open by invoking the Defense Production Act.

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Thousands of meatpacking workers across the country have contracted COVID-19, triggering plant closures in Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado. Until federal agencies issued guidelines this week, it was up to the plants to devise how to keep workers safe from the coronavirus. That’s led to a hodgepodge of policies and confusion among workers. 

When employees at the Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska clock in, they might pass a flyer taped up by the locker room. Some will stop to read it—if it’s in their language. Hundreds will miss it while hustling to work. 

According to employees, this is how Smithfield communicates with its staff of 2,000 during a pandemic.

One worker, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation from Smithfield, isn’t impressed.

“I just feel that's wrong,” she said. “You walk by it, you read it. If you don't see it, then you don't get the’s just a lack of communication out there.”

In a recent statement, the company said management is communicating with staff using written materials, verbal updates, and a company app. But she is not alone in her concerns. Union workers, plant employees, and advocates statewide say several plants haven't been clear with workers about how COVID-19 is impacting their plants.

“Communication is a big key during something like this,” she explained. “Don't get me wrong, because I am grateful. It's not that I want to be off of work, because I don't. But it's just very stressful.”

Many are getting crucial information from the grapevine, which she says isn’t always reliable. But she has gotten clues about cases from representatives at local 293 UFCW, which represents workers at Smithfield in Crete, and several other Nebraska plants.

A ‘Hodgepodge’ of Strategies

Eric Reeder, president the union chapter, had his hands full for weeks. Between calls from plant managers, union leadership, and workers who are terrified of catching the virus, the phone rings nonstop.

Part of Reeder’s stress has stemmed from navigating various companies’ pandemic policies. Governor Ricketts' statewide Directed Health Measures don’t regulate safety measures at large employers like meatpackers.

Without any statewide guidance, Reeder said, COVID-19 policies at Nebraska’s plants initially ran the gamut.

“None of this is uniform,” Reeder said on a call squeezed between afternoon meetings. “We were negotiating with each plant, so we ended up with this hodgepodge. Every location is different in some way.”

Reeder thinks that in some cases, not being required to act early or aggressively enough may have helped the virus spread.

Some companies responded more quickly than others, issuing raises and no-questions-asked COVID-19 sick pay before any obvious outbreak hit their plants. 

Others like JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, initially required a positive COVID-19 test from sick employees to get paid time off—a tall order for anybody in the city in early April. Tests were originally rationed for healthcare workers and first responders.

The company also rolled out $600 bonuses for anybody without an absence during the pandemic before later issuing an additional $4 raise after negotiations with national UCFW officials. At least 40 percent of the area’s cases are now tied to that plant.

“As evidenced by the way JBS’ infection progressed, they started with one reported case and jumped to 10 in a matter of days,” he said. “That tells me that even though they quarantined that individual and sanitized the area, they obviously didn't have a handle on it.”

Reeder said some plants also weren’t initially receptive to union recommendations, like expanding sick leave, premium pay, or distancing workers. He thinks that could be because some policies, like a six-foot distancing mandate or relaxing attendance rules, might have hurt the bottom line.

“Unless you lay off workers and slow the lines down to space people out, it's very difficult to be able to separate actually on the line,” he said.

“And I think that at times, production takes a primary focus over workers safety.”

Workers across companies say inconsistent and unclear policies have also added to a stressful few weeks. One Cargill employee, who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, was sent home for two weeks for coughing at work. She said she saw her doctor--who told her she did not have COVID-19--and wasn’t tested. When she returned to the plant, she said she was told Cargill would only cover part of that time: the company has said it offers 14 days of leave for employees.

“We did have to cut back into my savings to actually make it through the week. And now, I have nothing,” she said. “Honestly, I paid my bills, and my car payment, and now I'm waiting on next week's paycheck. And I’m lucky if I get that.”

Now, if she actually gets sick, she has no safety net. That’s a terrifying prospect for many workers, of whom many are the sole breadwinners for their families, especially right now.

“We don't want to take it home to our families. But we can't go without a paycheck either,” she said.

Some plants have helped workers transition to short term disability after their COVID-19 sick pay ran out. But that has also seemed to vary by plant.

“We wash our hands so many times a day, I think my hands are honestly cracking today from sanitizing and washing so many times.”

High Stakes for Meatpacking Towns

In many communities, a Tyson or Smithfield might be the largest workplace in town, employing thousands, so the fate of the town is tied to what’s happening at the plant.

Plus, a closure can have national impacts on meat supply chains: Most recently, a Tyson plant of 2,800 workers in Waterloo, Iowa, shut down after at least 150 cases emerged at the plant. 

That’s why officials such as Nebraska Gov. Ricketts want to keep them open. At a recent press conference,
Gov. Ricketts
maintained that he “does not foresee” closing any of Nebraska’s meatpacking plants, even as cases rise.  

“Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food? You want to talk about some of these protests that are going on right now? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products,” he said.

“This is why it’s vitally important that we keep our food processors open and do everything we can to assure our food supply chain because we would have civil unrest if that was not the case.”

Ricketts has mobilized resources to help keep them afloat. The state recently started sending experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to plants statewide to advise on safety measures. So far, the team seems happy with what they’ve seen. But Gov. Ricketts recently clarified that employees have not been included in communication with packers about bolstering safety or HR policies. 

Micky Devitt, who works with the labor advocacy organization Heartland Workers Center, agrees that the stakes are high. That’s led some advocates to say closures could have been avoided if companies had done more sooner, either on their own or at the urging of state and local entities.

And if they won’t close, she said, they can at least be transparent with how they are handling outbreaks.

“If employees don't know what the agreements are, and it's behind closed doors what these conversations are covering, there's isn’t accountability,” she said. 

“And there's not transparency to the public about what is going on in these meatpacking plants that we're all relying on.”

Typically, that’d be an issue for the Department of Labor.

“They are sympathetic to the issue, but they are, right now, going through a lot of stretch in their resources because of the unemployment crisis,” Devitt explained. “And that's where we're focusing on the governor, because we haven't seen him take a strong position.”

But any statewide policies would ultimately pull from state resources—which are already stretched thin.
“If you want to mandate, and you want to enforce, you're going to have to put resources into that enforcement. And now people are in crisis, and I think that makes it even a harder sell.”

Now that many meatpacking plants are COVID-19 hotspots, companies and local health officials are scrambling to contain the outbreaks: in late April, the CDC issued optional recommendations for companies that they separate workers, install physical barriers, and expand sick leave policies.

But workers are still frustrated that they have been left out of conversations around their own safety: Now for themselves and their families, all they can hope is that they don’t get sick.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect new information around federal meatpacking guidelines and collaborative reporting from Harvest Public Media.



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