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An employee at work in the meat department of a Florida supermarket. Such workers are considered essential and are taking risks during the pandemic but are not highly paid. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Food workers are suffering as COVID-19 infections reach rural America

Lukas Southard Apr 15, 2020
An employee at work in the meat department of a Florida supermarket. Such workers are considered essential and are taking risks during the pandemic but are not highly paid. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Infections of COVID-19 are growing in the Midwest and this could have dramatic effects on the workers who process the country’s food as well as the supply chain as a whole.

Smithfield Foods closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on April 14 due to concerns about COVID-19 spread at the facility. The company says that the plant provides around 4% to 5% of pork produced for U.S. consumers and employs 3,700 people.

In a letter from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to Smithfield President/CEO Ken Sullivan, the governor said that 54% of the 438 confirmed coronavirus cases in Minnehaha County are linked to the Smithfield meat plant. The company has agreed to close the plant indefinitely. Smithfield has also closed two more facilities in Missouri and Wisconsin due to coronavirus outbreaks.

It is not the only meat processing plant to close. Cargill has closed a meat packing facility in Pennsylvania and Tyson closed a plant in Iowa. JBS has also closed its Greeley, Colorado, plant  after two employees have died as a result of COVID-19.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the food workers last week and thanked them for their service. He implored workers to continue to “show up and do your job.”

This might be easier said than done.

The limits to food worker salaries and benefits are apparent

Companies like Hormel and Tyson Foods are offering bonuses to workers who stay on the job. Tyson has offered $60 million in “thank you” bonuses to 116,000 frontline workers and waived the five consecutive day waiting period for short-term disability benefits, allowing workers to receive pay while they’re sick. The company said that “workers can qualify for a one-time $500 bonus, payable during the first week of July.”

Although these offers incentivize workers to stay on the job, that might be a double-edged sword in the current climate. Meat packers who continue to work shoulder-to shoulder on processing lines when they might be sick or already infected could increase the risk of spreading the virus to others — both at work and at home.

“The plants will operate as long as they’ve got enough people to operate,” said Stephen Meyer, a pork industry economist for Kerns and Associates. “But the social fabric of many of these small towns where these workers live and the cultural practices of these workers who might live in multi-family groups is still pretty scary as coronavirus is floating around.”

Meat packers — like farmworkers — are considered essential workers, but these are not high paid jobs with generous benefits. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average meat packer in 2018 made $28,450 per year — or around $13.50 per hour.

“We don’t have other people who are jumping to do these jobs,” said Mary Jo Dudley, director of The Cornell Farmworker Program and faculty member in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University. “Once it hits the farmworker or meat packing community, it spreads like wildfire because everyone lives in close quarters. Social distancing is just not possible.”

Many food workers are undocumented and don’t have access to health insurance or paid sick leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) passed by Congress covers all people — including undocumented workers — unable to work as a result of the virus with two weeks of paid sick leave. This might not be enough to support these workers and the safety net at this point doesn’t extend much further for these workers.

Another issue for these rural areas is basic access to health care.

“In South Dakota, we have 18 counties that do not have a clinic or hospital in them,” said Susan Strobel, assistant professor of public health at University of South Dakota. “Some people are like two hours from hospital in really rural areas.” 

Strobel also said that some hospitals haven’t had enough business so doctors and nurses were being laid off, which could leave a big hole in health coverage if there was an outbreak in the rural areas where meat packers, farmers, and farmworkers often live.

What this means for the future of our food system

The ripple effect of these plant closures is still being assessed. The industry has reacted quickly to outbreaks in some facilities. Tyson Foods is using thermal scanners to do employee temperature checks, plexiglass partitions are being installed to separate workers, and even the production lines have been slowed down and shifts staggered to account for less workers on the job.

More safety precautions like these as well as updating the ventilation systems in the plants could reduce the concentration of airborne infectious agents, said Mohammed Elfaramawi, associate professor and chairman of MPH Program of Epidemiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “Laws and regulations to protect these workers need to be standardized and thoroughly implemented, not just issued.”

A reexamination of our food production systems could be a long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor at Cornell University, said there might be a heavier reliance on automation. It might make more sense to have less people in the factories or even spread production out over more smaller factories than fewer big facilities, he said.

Wiedmann pointed out that food companies might also start requiring food workers to be vaccinated for transmissible diseases like Hepatitis A or strains of coronavirus. 

This all could inevitably raise the cost of food, said Wiedmann. We have already seen the changes in empty supermarket shelves and a decreasing availability of certain food staples. Some of the costs of this virus will continue to fall on food production workers who will carry the burden of keeping affordable food on the table, both in their paychecks and now even with their lives.

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