At least 59,000 workers at the nation's five largest meatpackers were infected with COVID-19 and at least 269 died during the first year of the pandemic, a new investigation from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has found. That's almost three times the number of both infections and deaths known from previous estimates based on publicly available data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).
The actual number of COVID cases and deaths among workers in these facilities was likely even higher, because the data provided by companies to the subcommittee excludes cases discovered in off-site testing or self-reported by employees.
Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, Arkansas, reported the most worker cases — 29,462 — and deaths — 151 — of the five companies. The others are JBS (12,859 employee infections and 62 deaths), Smithfield (9,666 infections and 25 deaths), Cargill (4,690 infections and 25 deaths), and National Beef (2,470 infections and six deaths). The subcommittee noted that the full extent of infections and deaths at these companies was likely much worse as the data they provided to investigators in many instances excluded cases confirmed by offsite testing or self-reported by employees. Tyson did not respond to a request for comment.
"It's shocking for people to realize that companies don't have to report to anyone how many of their workers tested positive for COVID, or how many workers in their plants died of COVID," Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior Occupational Safety and Health Administration official under President Obama, told Facing South.
The subcommittee found that infections were particularly high at certain plants, including a Tyson plant in Amarillo, Texas, where 49.8% of the workforce contracted the virus. A memo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Texas health authorities to Tyson obtained by the subcommittee said that workers at the plant were wearing masks "saturated" with sweat and were separated by only "plastic bags on frames." The report also said that OSHA staff told the subcommittee that the agency's decision not to issue a regulatory standard on protective measures for workers was a "political decision."
Workers and their families called attention to lack of safety measures in poultry plants almost immediately once the pandemic began, as reporting by Facing South and other outlets documented. But, the subcommittee report noted, company executives and even the government spent months claiming that plants weren't a source of infection — and blaming outbreaks in their workforce on "community spread." The meat and poultry processing workforce is largely composed of non-white workers, and the industry relies heavily on immigrant labor. In Arkansas, as Facing South reported, two mayors worked with Tyson to tout safety measures inside the company's plants and claim that the virus's spread was mostly due to community behavior.
But the data obtained by the subcommittee showed a decline in infections among meatpacking workers as companies began implementing safety measures. "For example, Tyson's monthly employee infections from its 15 facilities with the highest aggregate team member positive case counts have decreased from counts as high as 1,672 in April 2020 and 1,242 in March 2020 to counts as low as ten and seven in July 2020," the report states.
The report confirmed what workers and advocates had been claiming all along, said Magaly Licolli, the co-founder of Arkansas workers' justice group Venceremos. "It was not shocking," she said.
Berkowitz and Licolli both testified at the subcommittee hearing on the report held Oct. 27. They were joined by Martin Rosas, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 2 in Kansas, and Rose Godinez, the interim legal director of the ACLU of Nebraska and the daughter of former meatpacking workers. Three representatives from Southern states serve on the subcommittee: Chairman Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, and Republicans Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Mark Green of Tennessee. None of the states they represent are in the top five for meat or poultry processing by number of workers.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, a physician, was the subcommittee’s only Republican member to use their speaking time to address the substance of the report. Scalise, the ranking member, spent his time calling for a hearing into the origins of COVID-19 and talking about inflation and the Biden administration's economic policies, as did the remaining Republicans.
"It was kind of like being in a room with insane people," Licolli told Facing South. "They were purposely, obviously trying to deviate from the subject, to not pay attention to it.”
In her testimony, Licolli recalled the early days of the pandemic, when she said she was "receiving many daily calls from workers, letting me know how terrified they were to see how fast their co-workers were getting infected with COVID." The subcommittee's report did not break down cases and deaths by state, but incomplete FERN data collected through Sept. 2 shows nearly 7,000 cases and more than 20 deaths in Arkansas meat and poultry processing plants.
Three testimonies submitted to the committee by Tyson workers in Arkansas using pseudonyms also recalled the consequences of being exposed to COVID on the job. "My life has changed completely after I contracted COVID," wrote a former Tyson mechanic who says he contracted COVID while working in the plant. "I currently only have 45% of my lung capacity. I lost my job and I'm unable to find other jobs because of my health condition.”
Another worker at Tyson's plant in Green Forest, Arkansas, wrote that the dividers installed by the company didn't do much to protect workers. "The reality was that we were still working shoulder to shoulder. Our head came out of those dividers to be able to process chicken properly," she wrote. She contracted COVID and came to work while symptomatic, she said, because she was afraid she would be fired. Her husband also contracted the disease and died.
Witnesses called for policy changes at the federal and state level to protect workers and provide more avenues for employees to combat unsafe working conditions.
"We really need to look at passing state laws that give workers a way to take employers into court when they just willfully decide that they're not going to protect workers," said Berkowitz. "There needs to be better protection in state laws, and federal laws, from retaliation for workers who speak up."
A major focus of the report was OSHA's absence during the pandemic, from conducting inspections to levying fines. The agency did not issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for meatpacking plants, which the report says OSHA staff called a "political decision." Such a standard would have required companies to take specific steps to protect workers and given OSHA greater enforcement power. In 2020, as thousands of meatpacking workers were sickened and hundreds died, the agency issued just nine citations to meatpacking plants. The agency received hundreds of complaints in that time period.
"OSHA under Trump was really hollowed out, was sort of shut down," said Berkowitz. "And it's going to take a while to turn the agency back on." She called for major budget increases to the agency that would allow it to rebuild.
"We need OSHA more than ever to function as it should be functioning," said Licolli.