Staggering Numbers of Covid-19 Cases in Meat Packers Point to Need for Improved Worker Protections, Paid Sick Leave
Statement of CSPI Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher
Every few days another meat packer reports a COVID-19 outbreak—and yesterday marked the largest wave of COVID-19-related closures yet. Three pork plants announced outbreaks and temporary closures, with 186 cases at Tyson Foods’ facility in Columbus Junction, Iowa, at least 28 cases at Smithfield’s Cuhady, Wisconsin facility, and enough cases to close the same company’s facility in Martin City, Missouri.
These closures follow Monday’s announcement of halted operations at JBS’s beef production facility in Greeley, Colorado, with at least 50 infected employees and three employee deaths, and last week’s shuttering of Smithfield’s Sioux Falls pork plant, where 518 employees have now tested positive, making the facility the single largest cluster of cases in the U.S.
Work in meat packing plants is already risky, with some of the highest rates of workplace injury of any job sector. But coronavirus has introduced an entirely new occupational hazard, with these crowded facilities becoming breeding grounds for the virus.
Mistakes by the meat industry have made conditions even worse. Workers at Smithfield report a lack of social distancing, inadequate personal protective equipment, and—worst of all—feeling like they’re being bribed with bonus pay to come to work sick. Tyson and JBS claim they’ve relaxed attendance policies that penalize workers for calling in sick, but have not announced they will offer paid sick leave, depriving workers the financial security they need to stay home when they develop symptoms.
The food industry can do better. We urge companies to put worker health first by providing effective PPE to all workers, enforcing social distancing, installing work station dividers where distancing is not possible, and providing up to two weeks of paid sick leave to any employee who misses work because they have become ill or exposed to COVID-19.