UNMC Meatpacking Survey Shows Mixed Results on COVID-19 Safety

June 12, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·

(Photo courtesy of Harvest Public Media)

At least 24,000 meatpacking workers nationwide have contracted COVID-19. Several companies say they’ve done everything they can to protect workers. A new survey of workers paints a different picture of those efforts.

According to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, over 70 percent of respondents across the region still feel they're at high risk for catching the virus. While most noted preventatives measures like masks, plastic barriers at their plants, and COVID-19 information in different languages, other policies like social distancing and sick leave had report rates of around 30 percent.

Dr. Athena Ramos, a professor at the University’s College of Public Health, expected that number to be much higher.

“I think what we've heard in the in the media, at least, from companies is that ‘Oh, yes, we're giving everybody paid time off,’” Ramos said.

"The workers were reporting that that wasn't happening."

While several companies have offered additional sick pay, some industry giants like Tyson Foods have utilized short term disability policies instead of fully paid sick leave. The company also moved recently to reinstate its pre-pandemic attendance policy, which penalizes workers for missing shifts due to illness. Tyson officials have since said workers with COVID-19 symptoms are exempt will still qualify for short term disability.

Around 40 percent of workers said they didn't know if their employers offer coronavirus sick pay. Governor Pete Ricketts feels the number indicate persistent communication failures between management and workers regarding pandemic policies.

"One of the messages we had when we met with the food processors going over the results of the survey, was, 'Hey, you gotta continue to work on communication so people understand what the benefits are, what the can expect,'" he said. He maintained he will not push harder for plants to adopt stricter COVID-19 management plans, citing any regulation responsibility lies at the federal level, but will continue to collaborate with and advise plants on best practices.

Hundreds of workers submitted stories of management pressuring them to come to work regardless of whether they are sick.

“The supervisors were some of the people who were pushing the workers to come back to work early, [saying], ‘We need you on the line,’" Ramos explained. "Or they were pressuring people to try to make it through the screening...so that they could meet their production goals.”

Many plants have temporarily close due to large outbreaks and later reopened after deep cleaning. Several are still battling severe outbreaks: In late May, the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City reported it still had 786 active COVID-19 cases.

Ramos imagines some policies that have not been implemented more widely, such as slowing down lines or creating more shifts with fewer workers in the building could have prevented such large outbreaks.

But companies expressed little interest in those recommendations, even now. On a recent call with Governor Ricketts and executives from several meatpacking companies, Ramos recalled executives were unmoved by the survey's results. "There wasn't really a lot of response," she recalled.

"Someone said, 'Yeah, it's not that surprising.'"