Cold, Crowded, Deadly: How U.S. Meat Plants Became a Virus Breeding Ground
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- By late March, Rafael Benjamin’s family was pleading with him to stay home from work even if it cost him his job. He promised he would, but not until after April 10. That would be his work anniversary, his 17th at Cargill Inc.’s pork and beef processing plant in Hazleton, Pa.—a milestone for topping up his pension when he retired in October.
So Benjamin, 64, soldiered on, a second-shift worker earning $15.35 an hour. Around him, colleagues were falling ill; on the employee grapevine, people said it was the coronavirus. Supervisors said that wasn’t true and told workers not to discuss who might be infected. But before long, Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, ran through entire departments. By April 7, 130 of the plant’s 900 employees had tested positive, according to the workers’ union, United Food & Commercial Workers International, but neither Cargill nor local officials were disclosing any numbers. Amid the information void, Benjamin kept working, with growing unease.
March was a time of spreading disease and denial across the U.S. meat and poultry industry. Laborers in the immense slaughterhouses and packing houses passed the contagion on processing lines and in locker rooms, then in their homes. Plants began to slow or to go idle. The toll on workers and the nation’s food supply is only now becoming clear.
By mid-March there were reports of panic buying, and President Trump and other federal officials sought to reassure the public that the food supply was sound. “You don’t have to buy so much,” he told Americans on March 15. “Take it easy. Relax.” Plants were running overtime to meet the surge in demand. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue weighed in on April 15: “In the United States, we have plenty of food for all of our citizens.”
And yet, each time he arrived at work, Benjamin saw a different reality emerging. A quiet, powerfully built man, he wasn’t the sort to open up about his fears, but during daily calls with his three adult children, he confided that he was afraid of getting sick. On March 25 one of his daughters gave him a face mask to wear at the plant, where he operated boxing and loading equipment near the entrance and was often the first person to greet arriving co-workers. “He was always so respectful,” a shiftmate says. Two days later, Benjamin told his kids a supervisor had ordered him to remove the mask because it was creating unnecessary fears among plant employees.
On Saturday, April 4, Benjamin called in sick. So few workers had shown up the day before that he’d had to do the work of three people, he told his family. By Monday his cough and fever were much worse. The next morning he could barely move. An ambulance took him to the hospital.
While he was in the emergency room, Cargill shut down the Hazleton plant to disinfect everything, install barriers between workstations, and give employees time to heal. Later that week, the union said 164 workers had been infected. The local testing center, running low on supplies, was refusing to test most Cargill employees. If you work at the meatpacking plant, they were told, assume you’re positive.
Benjamin was admitted to the intensive care unit and spent his work anniversary on a ventilator. He died on April 19. The next day the plant reopened after a two-week cleaning.
The meat industry’s failure to protect its employees from the coronavirus has triggered the most serious threat to U.S. meat supplies since World War II. In recent weeks, 115 meat and poultry plants have reported Covid-19 infections in the U.S., and about 5,000 workers, 1% of the industry’s workforce, have been confirmed sick, with 20 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreaks were so severe that at least 18 plants shut down. U.S. beef and pork production capacity shrank 40% in April, says Will Sawyer, lead economist at agricultural lender CoBank. U.S. consumers, Sawyer predicts, could see 30% less meat in grocery stores by Memorial Day, at prices 20% higher than last year.
On April 26, Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, which has had its share of infections and deaths and closed at least six major plants, ran national newspaper ads that declared, “The food supply chain is breaking.” Two days later, Trump formally classified U.S. meat plants as critical infrastructure, preventing state and local health agencies from closing them down regardless of illness and death. The government pledged to provide additional protective gear for employees.
The edict was followed by a statement from the U.S. Department of Labor that it would consider supporting employers sued by workers for coronavirus exposure, if the companies abide by federal pandemic standards. Processors, through their trade association, the North American Meat Institute, thanked the president for intervening. Labor advocates say the situation for meat workers could get worse under Trump’s executive order.
Now it’s up to the meatpacking companies, with even less accountability than before, to adapt to the coronavirus while sustaining production and worker health. “It remains to be seen how we’re going to manage that dynamic between the health and emotional safety, and physical safety, of the workers in the plants and the executive order,” David MacLennan, Cargill’s chairman and chief executive officer, told Bloomberg TV on April 28.
Trust among meatpacking workers and their communities, never high, has been shattered. “Until we got to the hospital, we had no idea how bad things were,” says Benjamin’s son, Larry, a soldier stationed at the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Ga. “If we would have known, for $400 a week after taxes, I can assure you he would have never been there.”
The cold, damp conditions and crowded workstations in meatpacking plants make infectious diseases particularly hard to control. But not impossible. In Europe, where labor protections are stronger and most plants are smaller and more automated than in the U.S., the industry has avoided disabling outbreaks. Danish Crown A/S, a huge pork producer, has had employees contract Covid-19 but has prevented plantwide spikes by employing strict hygiene practices, a spokesman says. Goikoa, of Spain, the nation with the most coronavirus cases after the U.S., says its plants have operated at full capacity throughout the pandemic. Britain, with the world’s fourth-most infections and second-most deaths, has minimized plant shutdowns through rigid social distancing, says Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association. Police showed up outside plants to lecture workers on keeping their distance, he says.
There are exceptions in the U.S., too. Sanderson Farms Inc., America’s third-largest poultry producer, has had about 100 workers test positive for Covid-19 out of 17,000 employees in its 13 plants across the South. In late March, Sanderson became aware of a coronavirus outbreak in Dougherty County, Ga., near its 1,400-worker plant in the city of Moultrie. It sent more than 400 workers home, with pay, to quarantine for two weeks whether or not they were showing symptoms. The plant had to slow its line speed by 15%, but it averted a spike in infection, a closure, and possibly worse. None of the Dougherty County workers tested positive, and there have been no reports of deaths among Sanderson workers.
Mike Cockrell, the company’s chief financial officer, says Sanderson expects its chicken production will be 4% less this fiscal year than it estimated before the pandemic. But “no one even asks how much it costs to protect workers,” he says. “We’ll add it up when this is all over.”
The health and well-being of meatpacking workers has always been a socioeconomic problem at root, says Matthew Wadiak, founder and CEO of Cooks Venture, a small Arkansas-based producer that sells pasture-raised chickens directly to consumers. The company hasn’t had a Covid-19 case among the 200 employees at its processing plant in Oklahoma. One reason is that from the start of the pandemic, Cooks Venture provided lots of protective gear and reconfigured the plant to spread out workers. But the bigger reason, Wadiak argues, is that the company pays better. His entry-level employees earn 20% more than other poultry workers in Oklahoma, enough for them to afford housing that’s not overcrowded. When you’re jammed into a group house, as so many meat workers are, social distancing is almost impossible.
“Americans’ desire to buy cheaper and cheaper food has a price in people’s lives,” Wadiak says. “If we as a country were willing to pay 25¢ to 50¢ more for a pound for meat, wouldn’t it be worth it to know a worker can make a living wage?”
That’s not a question usually asked by this industry, whose workers are injured at twice the rate of other U.S. manufacturing employees and get sick on the job at 15 times the national average. Meat workers at plants throughout North America say managers treat them like disposable parts. At Cargill’s High River slaughterhouse outside Calgary, where more than 900 of the beef plant’s 2,200 workers contracted Covid-19 and one died, supervisors began trolling the plant in N95 masks and plastic face shields. Workers say it was weeks before they were given paper and cloth face covers. Cargill spokesman Dan Sullivan says masks were provided to all employees once supplies were procured.
At JBS-USA’s beef plant in the Texas Panhandle town of Cactus, the company didn’t inform its 3,000 employees that a co-worker had gone home sick with suspected symptoms until nine days later, when the test for Covid-19 came back positive, according to three plant employees. By that time, multiple workers were falling sick, yet for at least a week longer, managers continued to deny the plant had a serious outbreak and told sick workers not to discuss their diagnoses.
On April 5 the wife of Anthony Germain fell ill with a fever, he says. (Germain, who doesn’t work for JBS, insisted on anonymity for his wife to protect her and other family members from losing their jobs at the plant.) She was still vomiting a few days later, but her fever was gone, so a JBS nurse told her to come back to work, he says. She tested positive for the virus on April 10. A plant superintendent followed up with a phone call and instructed Germain’s wife not to tell anyone she had Covid-19, according to Germain, who says he listened to the call and was outraged by the breach of pandemic protocol.
“Hell no, I’m not keeping my mouth shut,” he says. “They don’t want to cause fear and panic in the plant, but that’s already there. This is something that should not be kept in the dark.” Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, says no employee is asked to keep quiet about having Covid-19 and JBS informs workers when one tests positive. Employees with virus symptoms are sent home and no one is pressured to work sick, she says.
The Texas health department has linked 243 Covid-19 cases to the Cactus plant, making rural Moore County a state hot spot. On Easter Sunday, April 12, 28-year-old Juan Manuel Jaime died of Covid-19 complications, one of two deaths among the plant’s workers. Jaime had worked sick at the JBS plant for almost two weeks because his supervisors wouldn’t excuse him to see a doctor and insisted he keep working, says his aunt, Sandra Guzman. After Jaime worked on Good Friday, his parents found him incoherent in his bed on Saturday evening. He died four hours later while being transported to an ICU in Amarillo, Texas. Following his death, both parents got Covid-19, and his father spent a week in the hospital. Richardson says JBS did not know Jaime had Covid-19 until he died, and the plant has been adding fever screenings, more social distancing, and extra protective gear to protect workers.
The city of Hazleton, with more than 1,000 Covid-19 cases in a population of about 30,000, has one of the highest per capita infection rates anywhere—twice New York City’s rate and more than 11 times the rate in Pennsylvania as a whole. Cargill wasn’t solely responsible for Hazleton’s surge. Several nearby warehouses and processing facilities, including a Mission Foods tortilla factory and an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center, have also had virus outbreaks.
After a long economic decline, Hazleton, located 130 miles west of New York in anthracite coal country, lured Cargill in 2000 with generous tax breaks. Based in Minneapolis, Cargill is the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader and the biggest privately held company in the U.S. It reported $2.6 billion of net profit in 2019 on $113.5 billion of revenue. Its Cargill Meat Solutions division employs 28,000 workers at more than 36 facilities in the U.S. and Canada. The Hazleton plant butchers beef and pork carcasses for consumer-ready packages that are trucked to Walmarts and other East Coast stores.
The meat plant quickly became the area’s biggest private employer, drawing its low-skilled labor largely from Dominican families like the Benjamins. Many of them moved to Hazleton from New York and New Jersey. The Latino population jumped sevenfold from 2000 to 2010, to 37% of the city’s inhabitants, and has risen to more than 60% today. Unionized workers can make $500 to $700 a week at the plant—about the industry average—plus overtime, and enjoy health and vacation benefits. It’s enough for a decent living in Hazleton.
Cargill said nothing as the virus rampaged through the plant and Hazleton after mid-March, even as panic was rising in the city. The company’s silence added to people’s worries and led more and more healthy employees to stay home from work.
“How do you have 130 cases in the plant before telling anyone? Who made that decision?” asks Robert Curry, co-founder of the Hazleton Integration Project, which runs a local community center funded by Joe Maddon, a Hazleton native and manager of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. “Where’s the moral responsibility?”
Cargill was open and honest with local health officials and regulators about the virus in the plant, says Sullivan. Having gained experience with coronavirus in China, he says, the company was early to implement fever screening and other “best practices” across North America to protect workers. In Hazleton, Cargill started educating workers and staff on social distancing and took other precautions starting on March 3, says Aaron Humes, the plant’s general manager. According to interviews with 32 workers, however, supervisors and nurses downplayed the virus after that, telling symptomatic employees without fevers to take acetaminophen and keep working, and ordering workers not to discuss why colleagues were disappearing from the line.
At least 10 workers say their supervisors or infirmary staff sent them back to the line feeling sick. One eight-year Cargill veteran, who calls herself Anabel, says she worked the entire week of March 16 while sick. She says her supervisor in the beef division ignored her health complaints, and a plant nurse gave her acetaminophen and told her to keep working because her temperature was less than 100.4F, the CDC-directed threshold for coronavirus concern. At one point, Anabel says, she overheard her supervisor telling the nurse he was “tired” of so many workers getting sick. Anabel got so weak she could hardly stand up, but she didn’t leave because she didn’t want points on her record from unexcused absences. “Every time I coughed, there was someone in front of me and next to me,” says Anabel, who tested positive for Covid-19 on March 24. “All my co-workers got sick.”
The plant began screening workers for symptoms on March 25, two days after its first announced case, Humes says. When Benjamin arrived for what would be his last day of work on April 3, he told a nurse at the entrance that he had a dry cough and wasn’t feeling well, his son says. But his temperature was below 100.4, so she waved him in. Benjamin wasn’t the only person forbidden to wear his own mask. Three other workers said they heard supervisors say masks were forbidden. The reasons given varied—from only sick people should wear them, to the short supply was needed for health-care workers, to the explanation given to Benjamin a week before his fatal illness: No reason to scare people.
Cargill has made it “very clear” to employees not to come to work if they’re sick or have had contact with Covid-19 patients, Sullivan says. The company isn’t penalizing unexcused absences and is offering up to 80 hours of paid leave to employees who miss work because of Covid-19 impacts. Humes says he can’t confirm if Benjamin or anyone else was told not to wear a mask. “I don’t know who would have told him that,” he says. The facility followed safety directives from Cargill, which were based on guidance from the CDC, Humes says.
The CDC didn’t issue specific advice on masks for food and other critical infrastructure companies before April. The pandemic guidance for employers from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been the same since the swine flu in 2009 and was reissued on March 9 for the new coronavirus: Employers should provide masks to their workers “to limit spread of the respiratory secretions of a person who may have Covid-19.” Cargill began distributing masks in Hazleton on April 3, Humes says, 12 days before Pennsylvania’s department of health mandated that workers wear masks. “We were ahead of the curve.”
A second worker died recently, having apparently been infected before the shutdown of the plant. Since the reopening on April 20, workers wear masks and are separated by plexiglass screens on the line. Cargill takes temperatures twice a day, and nurses follow up with health questions for anyone with a fever of more than 100F.
The Hazleton plant hasn’t had a government inspection since before the pandemic. There were rumors of problems—as was the case with other facilities nearby—and the plant’s employees were flooding the local hospital. So after a month of waiting for federal or state inspectors to show, local officials formed a regional task force to do the job. Local inspectors made 138 visits in April—but not to Cargill, which was closed half the month. Local officials were caught off guard when the plant reopened April 20, says Dan Guydish, executive director of the Mountain Council of Governments, an affiliate of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce. No complaints have come in against Cargill since the plant reopened, Guydish says. Sullivan says Cargill is working with state and local officials and the business community to keep workers and all of Hazleton safe.
Americans eat more meat per capita than the people of any other developed country except Argentina—almost 50% more than Canadians and more than double what people consume in the European Union. One reason is that, because of industrial agriculture, meat and poultry cost at least 20% less in the U.S. than in most European countries. “Big companies are competing with each other for the cheapest meat down to the pennies,” says Wadiak of Cooks Venture.
Plant closures have sent prices soaring. Wholesale prices for beef hit an all-time high on May 4, double the recent low in February. Pork prices are the highest they’ve been since 2014, when a piglet-killing virus struck U.S. herds. Bob Brown, an independent market consultant in Edmond, Okla., estimates U.S. meat supplies have fallen 28% over seven weeks, equivalent to more than 500 million pounds. Some hog and poultry farmers are euthanizing pigs and chickens rather than holding and feeding them for slaughterhouses that may not open soon. “Protein markets are unequivocally the most volatile and least predictable I have ever witnessed,” says equity analyst Heather Jones of Heather Jones Research.
Trump’s executive order may keep plants open, but it can’t force sick and scared workers back to the line. The shortfall in output could continue to run as high as 15% even after plants reopen, Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said on April 30. Slaughterhouses, after years of lobbying to run their lines faster—resisted by labor advocates as too dangerous and by some food safety experts as likely to allow more unhealthy animals to be processed—may be forced to slow down for months and possibly years to adjust to fewer workers with more space between them. Livestock farmers may have to keep culling their herds, prolonging higher meat prices.
For now, hewing to enhanced safety standards makes sense for meat companies to keep plants open. But if you’re a worker, you have to wonder if the precautions will outlast the pandemic, when your health is no longer a threat to the broader community. Then what?
Maybe robots. Industry experts say meat companies are likely to emerge from this crisis determined to solve their labor problem once and for all with automation. “The old adage was that the machine doesn’t take a coffee break,” says economist Steve Meyer of Kerns & Associates in Ames, Iowa. “I guess the new adage is that the machine doesn’t get coronavirus.” —With Isis Almeida, Megan Durisin, Greg Ritchie, and Jen Skerritt
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