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?
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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.