'The more you come to work the more exposure you have': A work-while-sick culture leaves meat-plant employees fearing for their lives during the pandemic

insider@insider.com (Haven Orecchio-Egresitz)
·15 min read
Saul meat packing colorado covid
Family members of JBS USA meat-packing-plant employee Saul Sanchez at his funeral after he died from the coronavirus, in Greeley, Colorado.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

  • American meat-processing plants have been hotspots for the coronavirus, and more than 20 workers in the US have died.

  • While companies have introduced protective measures for employees, workers say they've come too late and are not enough.

  • Social distancing inside of the densely packed plants is nearly impossible, workers and their union said.

  • Business Insider spoke with employees about what it's like to work on the front lines during the pandemic.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

For the past 2 1/2 years, most mornings started out the same for beef-processing-plant employee Ann Day.

She would wake before sunrise, drive five minutes from her home to the JBS plant in the city of Greeley, Colorado, walk through a narrow underground tunnel from the parking lot to the plant, collect her uniform — a plastic apron fitted over a metal apron — and sharpen her knife.

By 6:25 a.m, Day would be on the production line, ready to kick-off a repetitive eight-hour day of slicing into cattle hides and attaching them to bungee cords. By the end of the shift, Day and her colleagues on the line would have processed more than 2,500 cows, she told Business Insider.

One morning in late March there was a hiccup to an otherwise mundane workweek.

Minutes before the line started rolling, her boss visited each employee on the line, one by one, letting them know that another worker tested positive for COVID-19.

Leaving no time to for questions, Day said, her supervisor shared the news and pointed to a poster on the wall. The notice informed employees they were eligible for a $600 bonus if they continued to come to work for the next few months, Day said.

"This is seconds before I started my day. He gave me no time to process it, to ask questions. As soon as you start the line, that's it. You cannot stop the line," Day told Business Insider. "You could see the fear in people's eyes as he went down the line telling people."

In the weeks following her boss's first announcement, seven JBS workers at the plant have died from the coronavirus. Several are on ventilators and hundreds have been diagnosed with the highly contagious virus, according to Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 7.

All the victims who died were over age 60, and most had worked at the plant for decades, Cordova said.

While the plant temporarily closed in early April after the first two deaths, it reopened on the 24th.

JBS told Business Insider that it has supplied personal protective equipment, or PPE, to employees, put partitions in place to separate people working on the lines, relaxed short-term disability policies, and hired additional cleaning staff.

Additionally, JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said, nobody at the company is fired for calling out sick, and sick days do not affect bonuses.

But Day says she and her wife, Tammy, who also worked at the JBS plant, were terminated on March 27 after missing work while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

The illness left them weak and unable to get out of bed. Ann Day, who is asthmatic, described a feeling of being "run over by a truck."

Bruett said that the couple lost their jobs because they didn't let their supervisors know that they were sick, which is in violation of a no-show policy.

The couple denies that's the case and showed Business Insider screenshots of calls and text messages they say they exchanged with the union and a supervisor the week they were ill.

The Days and Cordova feel that coronavirus safety measures at the plant were too little and too late to protect the 3,000 essential plant employees, most of whom work elbow to elbow.

Since the reopening, workers continue to report that there is a lack of company-wide testing or quality protective equipment and virtually no social distancing on-site, Cordova said.

"We understand that we have a job and we have to get it done. But, if you're not feeling well and you're going to work, you're going to infect other people," Ann Day said. "They put money over human beings."

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Employees at one plant in Colorado were told they would receive a $600 bonus if they continued to come to work after learning one of their coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19.

David Silverman / Getty Images

A systemic work-while-sick culture made meat plants ripe for COVID-19 outbreaks, workers say

Even before COVID-19, meat processing wasn't a job for the squeamish.

The work is long and physical. The work environment is rife with viscous animal blood and fat and putrid smells, and the job can be perilous. Until 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, didn't have strict accident-reporting guidelines for plants, and yet the risk of serious workplace injuries is very real. In 2016, the nonprofit Harvest Public Media found the top four meat-processing plants had reported 145 serious accidents — in which someone lost a limb or worse — at their plants.

A lack of paid leave in the industry has also created a work-while-sick culture that threatens the safety of employees at all times, but especially during a pandemic, Cordova said.

"They have really strict attendance policies, and they're only given so many days off before you're terminated," Cordova said. "Workers are less likely to report illnesses because they have to make a decision on whether to face financial devastation or to go to work sick."

Ann and Tammy Day, who both made a little over $16 an hour at JBS, said that not only was there a financial incentive to go to work sick, but there was also a feeling of not letting your colleagues and bosses down.

Both women felt compelled to go to work in the past when they were feeling unwell. When they did call out, they felt shamed when they returned.

"When you do go back they make you feel, like, 'you're not one of us,'" Tammy Day said.

JBS denied that the company's culture encourages employees to go to work ill.

"We absolutely do not have a work-while-sick culture. No one is forced to come to work, and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons," Bruett said. "Any team member who is fearful of coming to work can simply call the company and inform us, and they will receive unpaid leave without any consequence to their employment."

But Cordova said that's not the reality her workers are living. Many of the employees she represents, she added, cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

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Trump justified his executive order to keep meat plants open by saying the plants were critical to the nation's food supply.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

In meat processing, social distancing is nearly impossible

Meat-processing plants in the US have been hot spots for the novel coronavirus. At least 20 workers in the industry had died as of last week, and thousands more have tested positive.

Despite that, President Donald Trump last week took executive action to order the plants to stay open because of concerns about the impact on the nation's food supply.

Workers' union leaders, including Cordova, have criticized the executive order, saying it includes no language to ensure that workers' safety will be protected while the plants remain open. OSHA has said that while Trump's order is in place, it would not enforce coronavirus-related safety guidelines for the plants so long as they demonstrate "good faith" efforts to keep workers safe.

But without enforceable protections in place, Cordova fears that her union members and their families will continue to fall ill.

"You really are elbow to elbow. There are a lot of areas in the plant where you face each other," Cordova went on. "It's almost like a relay. The animal carcass, or the actual animal, is coming down the chain, and you're doing your job, and then you hand off the product or animal to the next person."

As of Monday, Cordova continued to field concerns from JBS workers that there is a lack of social distancing on-site.

"It's almost impossible in some areas, and they're really worried about that," Cordova said. "They've also been complaining that there was a lack of soap and hot water in the facilities."

When working on the production line, there is, at most, 18 inches between employees, Ann Day estimated.

To truly enforce social distancing at work, managers would have to remove at least half of the employees on the line, and doing so would severely limit production, she said.

Since reopening on April 24, some employees on the production side have been supplied with face shields, Cordova added. But those responsible for actually killing the cattle are unable to wear them.

"Where the animals are actually killed, the bloody side of the plant, it steams up their glasses and face shields so they can't wear them over there," Cordova said. "There's a lot of concern about that." 

JBS's Bruett said surgical masks were not only provided to every employee but they are required to wear them on-site. 

"Where six feet separation is not possible, we have erected physical barriers, such as stainless steel dividers and plexiglass partitions, to provide added protection," he wrote in an email. "All team members are provided, and required to wear, hard hats, ear protection, hair/beard nets, eye protection, surgical masks, frocks, and steel-toed boots." 

poultry plant
Plant workers feel they're being "led to slaughter," union president Kim Cordova said.

REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

JBS workers are not alone in their concerns

While JBS might have gotten the most attention because of its high number of deaths, the issues meat-plant workers there face are not unique.

Magaly Licolli is the director of Venceremos, a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of the thousands of poultry workers who live and work in northwest Arkansas.

Licolli told Business Insider that while none of the plants in her region have seen confirmed outbreaks, it's hard to know how many of the employees are sick without company-wide testing. She said the workers at the plants with whom she works are afraid to go to work but can't afford to take off.

"Right now we really don't know how many workers are sick. Tyson Foods just a week ago started providing the right equipment, but it was after they already had a confirmed case of COVID-19," Licolli said on April 30. "Every day they go to work, they feel like they are being led to slaughter."

But Tyson Foods said it has put additional safety measures in place to protect workers.

They include holding wellness screenings of everyone entering the facilities, supplying mandatory protective facial coverings and face shields, and assigning team members to be monitors ensuring that workers adhere to safety protocols and social distancing requirements, Tyson spokesperson Derek Burleson told Business Insider.

Tents have also been set up to be used for additional space during break times to promote social distancing, he said.

Tyson Foods is not publicly identifying how many employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, 'because of the evolving nature of this situation,'" Burleson said.

"The health and safety of our team members, their families, and communities is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously," Burleson wrote in an email. "We are conducting testing of team members and will not hesitate to idle any plant to conduct additional deep cleaning and sanitation of the entire facility."

One man who has worked for nearly a decade at a Tyson Chick'n Quick plant, in Rogers, Arkansas, told Business Insider that he didn't think the steps were enough and would like to see more transparency from supervisors during shifts.

He said that he and his wife fear that they would infect their four children by continuing to go to work.

"There is no social distancing, really," the worker told Business Insider through a Spanish translator. "It's difficult, and I've seen people come in sick, but I don't know if it's just a regular cold" or COVID-19.

The worker, who Business Insider has agreed not to name, acknowledged that there are partitions dividing some workers on the lines. His job, though, requires him to move around, and it's not possible to avoid coming in contact with other people, he said.

In addition to the threat of illness, the workers also face an increased risk of physical injuries now that there is a reduced number of employees on a line that is running the same speed, he said. Some employees are working additional days to increase production, he added.

"We are really at a high risk because the company is now making us work on Saturdays," the worker said. "The more that you come to work, the more exposure you have."

Burleson, though, said that there is no reason for workers to come into work sick.

"All employees who have tested positive will remain on sick leave until they have satisfied official health requirements outlined by the CDC for return to work," he said in the email, "and we have increased short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30 to encourage team members to stay home when they are sick."

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Immigrant workers in these plants are especially vulnerable.

Reuters/Jeff Haynes

The industry is carried on the backs of a vulnerable population

While many of the men and women who work at JBS are second- and third-generation Colorado residents who have worked at the plant for decades, it also employs a large population of immigrants, according to Cordova.

Of the six workers who have died, five were Latino and one was Burmese, she said.

"There is a good population of workers who are refugees and immigrants who came to this country for not only democracy but a piece of the American dream," Cordova said, "and they're living this nightmare now because these companies and the federal government and their president are treating them as functional widgets, as disposable objects." 

Immigrants, some of them unauthorized, make up a large percentage of the meat-processing workforce. 

Following Trump's order to keep plants open during the pandemic, Vice President Mike Pence led a call with Cabinet members, governors, and meat-industry executives to discuss the measure last week.

Officials acknowledged that immigrants were primarily on the front lines of the industry, according to audio of the call obtained by Business Insider.

During the call, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the administration's rules on temporary immigrant visas, H-2As, adding that immigrant workers would be allowed to transfer between jobs and stay past the three-year limit. A few minutes later, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, the brother of one of Trump's chief fundraisers, Todd Ricketts, and a son of Chicago Cubs owners Joe Ricketts, said most workers in the meat-processing plants are immigrants.

"English is generally not their first language — folks are generally living in higher concentrations, which makes it harder to do social distancing," Ricketts said.

Pro-immigration activists have accused Trump and his team of putting immigrant lives at risk during the pandemic.

"Immigrants have always been essential to America's workforce and their contributions during the coronavirus pandemic have helped to power entire industries facing unprecedented challenges," Tyler Moran executive director of The Immigration Hub, said in a statement.

In addition to language barriers and immigration status, there are financial barriers that make exposure particularly devastating, Cordova said. Despite the high risk involved with the work they do, many workers choose not to report on-the-job accidents for fear of losing their jobs or incurring astronomical healthcare bills.

One worker who was put on a ventilator with coronavirus received a $44,000 hospital bill, Cordova said.

"Mind you, these workers don't have that kind of money," she said. "I think that the public doesn't understand that this really a vulnerable group of workers."

Tyson Foods coronavirus
A worker at the Chick'N Quick plant, in Rogers, Arkansas, told Business Insider he was terrified of infecting his four children.

Tyson Foods

The mental health of workers and their families is being affected

At JBS, employees are showing up at meat plants every day as they mourn the deaths of their coworkers and family members, Cordova said. Many said they were feeling guilty for bringing the virus into their homes, a reminder their lives are viewed as disposable.

"It's not only the fear of going to work with the unknown because they're not testing, or grieving the deaths of the coworkers and family members," Cordova said, "but it's also the feeling that they have that they mean nothing to not only their company but their country."

The union has asked JBS to send in grief counselors for workers, but that hasn't happened, Cordova said. 

In a town where so many people's livelihoods are connected to the plant, Cordova said, the impact has trickled down into the local schools. "They're so scared about losing their parents," Cordova said.

"You have to protect these workers. There's not a vaccine, and we may be dealing with this for a long time if they don't put worker safety first," she added. "This is a human-rights issue. It's like a class war."

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