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What's being done to protect workers in Iowa’s meatpacking plants after COVID-19 outbreaks?

What's being done to protect workers in Iowa’s meatpacking plants after COVID-19 outbreaks?

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A Tyson meatpacking facility in Iowa.
A Tyson meatpacking facility in Iowa.
(Photo by Kassidy Arena/Iowa Public Radio)

The meat processing industry is one of the backbones of Iowa’s economy, but early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, plants, workers and communities across the state were devastated by massive outbreaks affecting thousands of people. 

Iowa has about 250 meat processing facilities sprinkled throughout the state, providing jobs to more than 26,000 people, second only to neighboring Nebraska.

The workforce at these facilities is among the most diverse in a state whose population is 85% white. 

These plants are filled with many immigrants and refugees workers from places like Mexico, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They work jobs that pay above-average wages and allow them to buy homes, collect savings and send their kids to college.

But the job is a tough one. Workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder for long shifts using sharp knives and dangerous machines with fast moving production lines, a method of meat processing invented by an Iowa company in the 1970s that has become the industry standard today.

But these close working conditions make meat processing plants dangerous places to work. It’s also what made them vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Last spring, the coronavirus tore through the state’s meat processing plant facilities. Thousands of Iowa’s workers were confirmed to have the virus. This includes more than 1,000 workers at a Tyson facility in Waterloo and more than 500 at another Tyson facility in Storm Lake. 

The total number of workers affected was more than 2,600, according to state health department records. But that number is likely a gross undercount. Publicly released information from meat processing companies and county health officials’ reports have conflicted with the state numbers, reporting hundreds more cases than the state’s official record. 

Workers described situations in which they showed up sick to work, unable to take paid sick leave. Some said they were uncertain of what was happening in the plants due to a lack of interpreters and didn’t have proper access to personal protective gear.

The sudden influx of sick workers overwhelmed local hospitals and clinics and local public health departments.

Some workers died, prompting several families to file wrongful death lawsuits. 

This includes one filed by the families of three Waterloo plant employees. It grabbed national headlines for allegations that managers placed bets on the number of employees who would catch the virus. Tyson responded by initiating an investigation that led to the dismissal of seven plant managers.

The magnitude of the infections and media reports on the outbreaks prompted a House subcommittee to launch an investigation into the role that Tyson, JBS and Smithfield Foods had in the infections that swept through their facilities.

Now that more than a year has passed since the outbreaks, my project will focus on how these outbreaks have affected the workers, communities and industry, and what that means for the future.

What’s being done in the future to prevent an outbreak like this from happening again and better protect workers’ health?

Big meat processing companies like Tyson have started opening on site health clinics in places like Storm Lake, Iowa, to offer more health care options, while local nonprofits that work with agricultural workers are now launching services specifically for meatpacking plant workers.

My three-part series of audio and digital stories for the 2021 National Fellowship will look at these initiatives while checking in with what efforts have been proposed by lawmakers.

It also will profile the communities and diverse group of workers who were impacted by the outbreaks. 

It will explore how workers and the smaller, rural communities they live in were affected and changed by the outbreaks and the complex relationship they navigate with meatpacking corporations in the aftermath.

I plan to spend time with workers and their families and the community they live in, and speak to a variety of community leaders and local officials to gain an understanding on the outbreaks’ long-term impacts on them.

This project will be translated into multiple languages so it is accessible to the multilingual workforce.

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