The number of meatpacking workers dying from the coronavirus is still rising, and employees across the country are scared to come to work.
The latest Agriculture Department figures show that U.S. meat production is returning to nearly last year's capacity, accomplishing the White House's goal of keeping the food supply steady during the pandemic.
But while slaughter lines may be up and running, lawmakers, employees and labor leaders say the federal government is failing to protect workers' safety, and they warn that death tolls will continue to rise unless the federal government expands its safety authority over the operations of the country's meatpackers.
At least 44 meatpacking workers have died from the virus and more than 3,000 have tested positive, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. About 30 plants have closed in the past two months, affecting more than 45,000 workers.
A spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency responsible for worker safety, told POLITICO that it has received more than 4,400 Covid-19-related safety complaints, but has issued only a single citation related to the pandemic.
Major meat companies like Tyson and JBS continue to say that they are looking after their employees with safety measures like installing plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizing stations.
But those actions don't completely mitigate the reality of these operations as workers, most of them low-income immigrants or refugees, risk their lives or face losing their jobs.
Dennis Medbourn, an employee at a Tyson hog processing plant in Logansport, Ind., tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of April, one of about 890 cases at the plant which totaled 40 percent of the workforce. The one plant processes 3 percent of the nation’s pork.
After it was clear an outbreak was spreading, Tyson shut down the plant for two weeks for deep cleaning, but reopened in early May after President Donald Trump issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act to tell companies with shuttered plants to reopen them.
These facilities must keep running because any “unnecessary closures” can significantly disrupt the food supply chain, the order states.
One goal of White House officials in ordering the plants reopened was to help farmers dealing with a backlog of animals waiting for slaughter. But the problem is persisting: The pork industry estimates that up to 10 million hogs will need to be euthanized over the next few months.
Trump’s executive order also did not address issues like whether to require employees to be tested for Covid-19 before returning to work. And consolidation in the meat industry has left four big companies responsible for 85 percent of the U.S. market for the slaughter and packaging of beef.
Data compiled by last week by the Food & Environment Reporting Network shows that rural counties with meatpacking plants had Covid-19 infection rates that are five times higher on average than the rest of rural America.
Other clusters continue to be reported. Last week, a Tyson plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, had to shut down after the state said 555 of the plant's 2,517 employees tested positive for the coronavirus.
Medbourn told POLITICO that many employees at his Indiana plant are still not coming to work because they’re either afraid or sick, and the plant has been unable to fill shifts, operating at a lower capacity.
“A lot of people are legitimately scared right now because they thought the same thing, we shouldn’t open up soon,” he added. “A lot of people are still apprehensive, but we’re here because we have a job to do.”
A spokesperson for Tyson told POLITICO that the company has put in place protective steps in line with CDC and OSHA guidance. That includes taking employees' temperatures when they arrive at the facility; providing face masks; implementing social distancing measures such as installing physical barriers between workstations and in break rooms; and installing hand sanitizer stations throughout.
Tyson also parked a mobile health clinic at the Logansport operation and other facilities that provides testing, screenings and access to health providers.
“At Tyson, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their families and our communities,” the spokesperson said. “We take this responsibility very seriously and are doing everything we can to keep them safe and healthy.”
But the federal government hasn't converted any of its recommendations into requirements. As a result, precautionary measures vary from plant to plant, depending on local management, contributing to employees' worries about their health and safety.
Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said during a House hearing last week that the agency has more than 58 active complaints or inspections, but those probes typically last months.
The high speed of assembly lines and close quarters employees work in also make it difficult to apply public health recommendations, like six feet of distance between workers, in plants. Exacerbating the situation, the Trump administration has rolled back regulations in processing facilities, allowing line speeds to increase, a major lobbying push from major meat companies.
An employee at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo., where eight workers have died from the virus, told POLITICO that although the company has required social distancing in break rooms and other areas, workers remain standing shoulder to shoulder on assembly lines. The employee was granted anonymity out of concern about retribution from the company after speaking out.
“It’s hard being an employee and going through the process,” he said. “We’re more worried about our jobs and keep on working or else we don’t get paid.”
A spokesperson for JBS said that the company has invested more than $150 million in workplace safety measures and pay bonuses. The company is providing free testing, face masks and has "removed the most vulnerable populations from Greeley," such as employees 60 years or older, with full pay and benefits.
"We know some people are scared and anxious, and we are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facilities," the spokesperson said.
Large meatpackers say they have been working with the Agriculture Department to issue safety guidelines under authority granted to the department by Trump’s executive order.
A USDA spokesperson said in a statement that federal agencies have provided about 3 million face masks to the grocery and meatpacking sectors, and the government intends to provide more face coverings to states, territories and tribes.
“In executing the president’s executive order, USDA will continue to work with our federal partners and state, local, and tribal officials to meet resource needs to keep food and agriculture employees safe and maintain the continuity of food supply chain operations,” the spokesperson said.
But it’s unclear how involved the department is in the daily operations of plants and ensuring that companies are following public health guidelines.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in May that in a briefing with USDA officials, they were unable to confirm if the plants that have reopened since Trump’s order were operating in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidelines.
Stabenow also said that officials said the department had not spoken with plant workers or unions on safety issues or needed improvements. They also did not indicate that the department had consulted with OSHA during the process of reopening plants or that safety officials had visited recently opened operations.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said that the president ordering plants to stay open was the “absolute wrong thing to do” and that protecting the food supply means that workers’ safety should be the priority.
Companies have told employees throughout the pandemic that they are safe, but instead workers have seen their colleagues get sick and die, he said.
“The curtain has been ripped away by this pandemic and we’re able to see the conditions under which people work,” he said. “I think that people need to understand that there has to be dramatic changes of this industry and we have to respect the humanity of people who feed us and make it possible for us to eat.”
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.