“If you’re not in a casket, they want you there. All they were worried about was making sure we were coming to work.” This is the description given by one employee of the conditions imposed on workers at one of Smithfield’s meat processing facilities. As a nation already facing empty grocery store shelves learned that worker shortages could mean an interruption in the meat supply, the workers themselves have started coming forward and describing the conditions at those facilities.
By their own admissions, both Tyson and JBS failed to mandate employee mask usage until the middle of last month. Smithfield said only that masks were available as per CDC guidance, but wouldn’t tell The Washington Post exactly when those masks became available. And, the St. Charles, Illinois Smithfield plant was recently closed by county health officials over concerns related to employee safety and protective equipment.
Meat packing plants have recently been noted as coronavirus hotspots and the numbers for the facilities are concerning. A Smithfield processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota saw at least 891 of its workers test positive for Covid-19 and at least one has died from the illness. A Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa saw close to 200 cases and at least two deaths. The same company lost at least four employees at a plant in Camilla, Georgia from the novel coronavirus. In fact, as noted in research conducted by The Washington Post, at least 31 plants owned by either Smithfield, JBS, or Tyson have had outbreaks ravage their workforces.
The issue is further complicated by the complete abdication of duty by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. OSHA’s guidelines encouraged employers to offer surgical masks or respirators to the nation’s essential workers who faced exposure to coronavirus infection; especially those who could not maintain six feet of distance between one another. This condition is extremely common in meat processing facilities. However, in the same breath, the agency with the words “occupational safety and health” in its name told those same employers that it would not be enforcing its own guidance in an effort to avoid overly burdening them.
As production churned on at a company that would eventually face a county-ordered forced closure, JBS saw its first confirmed case of Covid-19 on March 26. “We want to say a big thank you to all our employees that continue to come to work this time to help feed the world,” the company said on its Facebook page that day. The thank you was five pounds of ground beef.