Dulce Castañeda knows what her Mexican immigrant parents have sacrificed — and what her family has gained — by working at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete, Nebraska.
Her mother stopped working at the meatpacking plant when Dulce was a girl, after the repetitive hacking motions required to slice pork injured her wrist. Her father still works there after nearly 25 years, even as eight- and 10-hour shifts on the production line leave his back and hands aching.
“It’s been gruesome and hard and difficult, but it’s something he’s stuck with all these years,” said Castañeda, 26. “I definitely admire him for that. Even being such a back-breaking job, it’s gotten all of his children to really live out his version of the American dream.”
The steady employment and reliable wages have allowed her parents to own their home in Crete. Their children have been spared a similar life working on or near the kill floor — Castañeda and her sister went to college. Their brother joined the military.
Life as a meatpacking worker was never easy, and it has only grown harder during the coronavirus pandemic.
Inside the sprawling plants located on the edges of many rural communities — or the old stockyards in South Omaha — the work involved in slaughtering animals and cutting and packaging the bacon, steaks and chicken breasts sold to local grocery stores and restaurants is grueling, bloody and virtually invisible. The workers are often immigrants or refugees from Central America, Myanmar, Somalia and South Sudan drawn to work that doesn’t require much English and pays higher than minimum wage.
But now those workers face new risks and fears as the coronavirus spreads through meatpacking plants across the Midwest. Roughly 15% of Nebraska’s confirmed coronavirus cases and at least three deaths can be traced to meatpacking plants — 1,005 of the state’s 6,771 cases as of Thursday involved workers, Gov. Pete Ricketts said.
Inside crowded plants where hundreds, sometimes thousands, work, the highly contagious virus threatens to sicken workers. Meanwhile, production slows as plants temporarily shut down or scramble to keep pumping out meat with smaller crews. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 workers nationwide have died, based on data submitted to them by 19 states in April.
In Nebraska, outbreaks have hit Grand Island, Omaha, Crete, Lexington, Madison, Dakota City and Schuyler, at chicken, beef and pork plants run by meat titans such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, and JBS USA. A worker at a Fremont chicken plant died of coronavirus-related complications, the company that runs the plant disclosed. The Sioux City Journal has reported at least three deaths tied to Tyson’s Dakota City beef plant.
Roughly 330 people — workers and their family members — connected to the Crete plant where Castañeda’s father works have tested positive for the virus, according to local health departments.
Similar to coronavirus clusters seen in homeless shelters, prisons and nursing homes, the crowded conditions in plants seem to allow the virus to spread more easily, the CDC said. But it’s still difficult to pinpoint whether workers who are falling ill caught the virus at work or during off-hours.
Workers’ family members said the plants and the nature of the close-quarters work seem to be the common denominator fueling outbreaks.
“We’re all worried and sick to our stomachs,” said Castañeda, who helped organize a group, Children of Smithfield, to bring awareness to plant conditions and spotlight workers. “Now we’re just seeing larger and larger numbers of cases turning out positive each day, and we’re just watching things get worse.”
The World-Herald spoke with nearly a dozen meatpacking workers or their family members in Crete, Lexington, Omaha, Council Bluffs and Grand Island. Most spoke on the condition that they not be named out of fear that they or their relatives would lose their jobs.
Some credited plant operators for trying their best to contain a virus that has upended the world.
“I don’t blame Tyson really at all about this,” said one man who works at Tyson’s beef plant in Lexington. “I think they maybe could have been a little quicker on some things. When the whole nation is looking for masks, that makes it harder.”
Meat companies have said they are trying to protect their workers with enhanced safety measures — temperature checks, dividers on the production line, relaxed attendance policies and increased sanitation of plants — while still satisfying the appetites of American and global customers who want meat.
“Our ability to get our workforce at full capacity depends on the safety of our team members,” Tyson spokeswoman Morgan Watchous said. “So right now, we’re focused on using every tool at our disposal to make sure they are protected and capable of continuing to serve their critical role of bringing food to families’ tables across the country.”
But some workers described bathrooms without soap, even as posters on the walls remind workers to wash their hands. Workers at one South Omaha plant were told they could buy personal protective equipment from their employer — 50 cents a mask and $12.50 for a box of rubber gloves. A temporary worker at an Omaha Steaks warehouse in Sarpy County said he was fired after complaining about the cloth masks given to workers in the freezer section that quickly got soiled and wet. The company disputed his version of events.
A refugee with young children who works at the Costco chicken plant in Fremont decided to stay home rather than risk getting sick. A worker at the JBS plant in Grand Island did the same to protect his pregnant wife, but went back because they needed the money. Many described a nearly impossible choice.
What’s more important: your health or a paycheck?
* * *
Hall County, where Grand Island is located, has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in Nebraska, 1,311 on Friday. The infections have soared due to community spread, outbreaks in nursing homes and the more than 200 workers at the massive JBS USA beef plant who have tested positive for COVID-19.
One worker in the slaughterhouse at the JBS plant said several people in the area where he worked tested positive for COVID-19.
“Our managers didn’t say anything. I panicked and left,” he said.
The worker, who has asthma, decided he couldn’t risk it and stopped coming to work in mid-April. He said JBS had not provided masks until a few days before he left.
“I am scared to return,” he said at the end of April. “Without money, I can find a way to live, but I can’t live without my health.”
Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, said masks were provided in Grand Island starting April 7, after the company ran into problems securing enough masks for workers in more than 60 facilities. Masks are now mandatory and handed out daily, and dividers have been placed on the production line where possible.
Daily absenteeism has hovered around 34% and is improving, she said. That includes a number of workers who have been sent home with pay because they are older or have serious health problems.
JBS told employees they can take unpaid time off if they do not feel comfortable working. Those who do show up get paid an extra $4 per hour and a $600 bonus, a deal struck between JBS and the union that represents workers in Omaha and Grand Island.
Despite the wage increase, one woman decided to stay home until the situation there improves.
Co-workers have told her that JBS has added dividers in the cafeteria, more hand sanitizer stations and masks. The plant already had an on-site health clinic. But it’s difficult to stay 6 feet apart when hundreds of people work each shift. The plant employs a total of 3,600 people.
She left at the end of March because there were no social distancing protocols in the workplace, not enough hand sanitizer for everyone and no hand soap in the bathrooms. She said the slaughterhouse where she works doesn’t have the same conditions as other areas of the plant that some members of the media were allowed to tour in early April.
She has been burning through savings to pay bills and buy groceries for her family. She has not received any financial assistance, but she said returning to JBS right now is the last option — she wants to work but needs to know it is safe and every worker has been tested.
A slaughterhouse employee reluctantly returned to work after a weeks-long absence to provide for his growing family.
“I decided to come back to work because my daughter will be born” soon, he said. “I’m trying to take care of my health as much as I can.”
He said masks are doled out and temperature checks are done at the entrance of the buildings, but inside the plant is a different story, with some workers squeezed close together and a limited availability of water and soap.
“We have plenty of soap and hand sanitizer in the facility, and we have dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor,” Richardson said.
Several of the people interviewed said they are aware of employees with COVID-19 still working. Officials at numerous companies have said that workers are urged to stay home if they’re feeling sick and that those who are ill are sent home to isolate — sometimes with full pay, sometimes with short-term disability coverage that pays less.
Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele has said he wants JBS to remain open, to prevent any nationwide meat shortages.
With other plants shutting down or scaling back production, the plant in Grand Island is now processing half of all Nebraska’s beef, he said at a press conference Thursday. The plant is donating money and thousands of pounds of meat to local grocery stores and food drives.
“I want JBS to be a safe place to work, and the management at JBS wants the same thing,” he said.
* * *
Ricketts and President Donald Trump have said meatpacking plants must stay open to continue feeding America, with Trump signing an executive order April 28 deeming the facilities critical infrastructure.
Ricketts has said conditions at meatpacking plants are not solely to blame for the outbreaks — workers could be contracting the virus at home or the grocery store. Prevention efforts need to focus on what’s happening in workplaces and out in the community, he said, with better outreach to those who speak other languages.
Public health officials have said lower-income workers may be more vulnerable to the virus due to poverty and other factors.
“It’s not just the plant itself, it’s not just what’s happening within the place of work,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, a University of Minnesota assistant professor who researches rural health and health disparities.
“It’s this stew of other things that we have happening in those places,” she said in a conference call last week with journalists. “Meatpacking plants are disproportionately staffed by people who are newer immigrants ... people who have lower access to health insurance, some people who have more underlying health conditions to begin with, people who work very low wages and who live in closer quarters. And so ... even without the meatpacking plant, they’re more at risk.
“It’s just a really volatile situation we are seeing play out in tragic ways in the Midwest and beyond,” she continued.
Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said at a press conference May 1 that workers could be contracting the virus on the clock or off.
“It could be that these individuals are bringing it into the plant from their home and community environment. So we need to protect both sides of it,” she said. “It’s not only the meatpacking plant. The meatpacking plant(s), I can tell you, we have been on phone calls with them, they are really (trying) to do the best thing they can.”
Thursday, Pour revealed that 392 workers in nine Omaha-area meatpacking plants have tested positive since the pandemic began. Other clusters have emerged at assisted living facilities, a bakery, even a Zumba fitness class.
But Castañeda said not all meatpackers or immigrants are crowding 15 to an apartment. Her parents and many of their Smithfield co-workers own their single-family homes.
“I think it’s easy for corporations and for the government to point their fingers at community members and workers in order to deter responsibility from themselves,” she said. “It feels like that’s what happened — blaming language, blaming culture, blaming the way we live.”
It’s ironic, she said, that immigrant workers face such criticism even as they fill jobs that are described as essential to the country.
Another 29-year-old woman has parents who work at the Crete plant. One came down with a mild case of COVID-19, akin to a bad cold. Both her parents have since returned to work, even though they were never re-tested.
They are empty-nesters who went grocery shopping only once in March, she said. She is 99% sure her parent caught the virus at work.
“We have never wanted Smithfield to just shut down,” she said, speaking of the “Children of Smithfield” group. “We know that’s not the answer. We understand our parents are essential and play a huge part in the country’s economy and food chain. We do feel it’s important that Smithfield treats them as essential if that’s what they’re going to call them.”
Plants need to provide consistent personal protective equipment to workers and, if possible, conduct mass-testing events, she said.
“Across all its facilities, the company is providing its team members with PPE, including masks and at least temporary face shields,” Smithfield said in a statement released May 1. “Media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong. There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.”
Her parents are nervous about returning to work, and she feels heartsick over the fact that they’re still working a physically demanding job as they grow older.
They are Mexican immigrants who came here for a better life. She has a master’s degree.
“I almost have this sense of guilt I’ve been struggling with,” she said. “My parents have sacrificed their bodies, everything, to work at this plant over the years, for me to get a college education, so I can have the privilege of working from home.”
* * *
Plastic dividers have been installed in the cafeteria and in the production area, wherever possible, at the Tyson beef plant in Lexington, a worker in his 30s said.
But meat processing is meant to be fast, efficient work done by people standing next to and across from each other on the conveyor belt-style production line. Separating people inside a plant that employs nearly 3,000 people in different shifts is not so easy.
“The building wasn’t built for this type of situation,” the worker said.
He estimates staffing there is down 50%, as more workers get COVID-19 or call in sick. Dawson County, where Lexington sits, had 686 cases on Thursday. Residents line up around the block when the Nebraska National Guard sets up testing sites. The local health department has not identified how many cases are connected to the Tyson plant.
“They have not told us any number” about confirmed cases inside the plant, the worker said. “They’ve been pretty tight-lipped about it.”
Companies have said they are notifying workers who may have been exposed to COVID-19. But several workers or their family members have said they usually find out through word of mouth.
“They’re not telling employees who’s sick and who isn’t,” said the worker at the JBS subsidiary in Council Bluffs, a move he believes is intended to prevent workers from panicking. The JBS spokeswoman said the company follows CDC guidelines for contacting and quarantining workers.
In Lexington, walk-through infrared cameras scan workers’ body temperature as they start their shift, and they are handed a surgical-style mask if they don’t have a fever. Employees are not asked if they feel sick or know anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, the Tyson worker said.
“They have a flyer taped on the window that says, ‘Hey if you have any of these symptoms, you can’t work,’ but they don’t actually ask you that,” he said.
Watchous, the Tyson spokeswoman, said health screenings are taking place at all plants. Tyson has also hired a third-party health provider to monitor sick workers and clear their return to work.
The plant is offering different tiers of bonus pay, including a daily rate and $500 for not missing work during a certain period of time, the Tyson worker said.
He worries that attendance bonuses will incentivize people to come to work sick. A COVID-19 playbook developed for meatpacking plants by University of Nebraska Medical Center public health and infectious disease specialists said companies should rethink any bonuses or raises tied to attendance.
Lexington, population 10,000, is highly dependent on the plant, the city’s largest employer. If the plant closes down, even temporarily, there could be a domino effect.
“If Tyson shuts down, there’s really no money moving around the town,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean workers aren’t scared and anxious each day they report to work.
“They don’t know if they’re going to be out of a job, they don’t know if they’re going to get sick, they don’t know if they’re going to get their family sick,” the worker said of his co-workers. “Every day we see the numbers kind of going up. We’re nervous.”