While Meatpacking Workers Fear Speaking Out on COVID-19, Their Children Organize for Them

Dec. 29, 2020, 8:45 a.m. ·

Demonstrators protest at the State Capitol building in solidarity with meatpacking workers at a recent rally. (Photo by Christina Stella)

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Many of Nebraska’s largest COVID-19 hotspots are meatpacking areas with deep immigrant roots. Advocates say those communities are disproportionately impacted by the virus.

But many workers have avoided speaking out about the toll of working during the pandemic for fear of losing their jobs. Now, it’s up to their children to organize on their behalf.
Nhu-Y Ngo is a lawyer in New York City, but has roots in Nebraska. She grew up in Lincoln, having moved there with her family from Vietnam in the early 1990s.

Soon after settling in the city, her dad got a job at the Smithfield plant in the nearby town of Crete. These days, it’s the biggest employer in town, with roughly 2,000 employees.

When asked what she remembers about his work, the sound of his alarm clock comes to mind.
“Sometimes I was having a bout of insomnia that evening, and I didn't fall asleep," she recalled. "But then my dad’s alarm would be going off...I would see him go out before I had even gone to bed.”

He still wakes up before dawn for work. Over his twenty-seven year long career, he’s become an institution at the plant, mentoring young employees new to the job. He's close with his managers, too, to the point of bringing them home trinkets after rare trips to see Ngo and her siblings graduate from college.

"I don't know what that relationship is like, but obviously, it's enough for him to be like, 'Oh, let me get him this lighter,' because he likes to take smoke breaks," she explained. "It's also another way to be, like, 'Hey, I went to go visit my daughters and I'm proud of them,", y'know?"

But even as a massive COVID-19 outbreak has gripped the plant, with hundreds of reported cases, she says her dad doesn’t talk about it much. That’s not new behavior. “They've just put their heads down, and that's helped them survive,” Ngo said.

Many children of meatpacking workers say their parents are still scared of getting COVID-19, but also worry about getting fired for speaking out. Several companies like Smithfied have issued statements highlighting their pandemic policies, claiming they meet or exceed guidance.
But advocates have alleged many plants still aren’t socially distancing workers and don’t have enough PPE. Plus, some companies like Tyson still don’t offer fully paid sick leave, despite encouragements to expand policies from OSHA.

Those concerns recently brought Maira Mendez, an organizer with the advocate group Children of Smithfield, to the steps of Nebraska’s Capitol Building. She greeted a crowd of dozens, some who dropped in while waiting for a Black Lives Matter protest to begin, and others from meatpacking communities across the state.

“I stand as a proud daughter of two meatpacking plant workers who immigrated to this country over 30 years ago, with a single purpose--to provide the best for our family,” Mendez said.

She added plants are a critical presence in many of Nebraska’s immigrant communities, employing thousands. And in many cases, meatpacking jobs give many first Generation Americans access to social and economic mobility.

“These meatpacking plants have made it possible for our parents to put us through college," she cautioned. "Yes, we are thankful, and don't intend to hurt these companies. But we won't allow employers and government officials to classify plant workers as essential workers without treating them as essential lives.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, ⅔ of those workers are immigrants. It's been estimated that over 60 percent of the total workforce is Latino.

The state hasn't specifically reported how much crossover exists between the two groups when it

comes to COVID-19 cases. But advocates say immigrants working at plants, particularly Latino immigrants, have been disproportionately hit by outbreaks. Statewide, Latinos make up almost half of Nebraska’s COVID cases.
“This is a deeply immigrant community that is uplifting local economies and putting food on the table,” said State Senator Tony Vargas, who said he represents many plant workers in South Omaha at the Nebraska Legislature. Among other concerns, like not establishing statewide pandemic policies early on at plants, Vargas said the state should have done more early outreach to workers.

“It took weeks for us to get Spanish language education material in certain places, let alone at the state level,” he said.Governor Ricketts has acknowledged the state's struggle to prepare materials as quickly as they were necessary. Nebraska has since integrated written materials and Spanish press conferences into the state's pandemic strategy.

For Vargas, watching the crisis unfold in his district has hit home. He identifies as a first generation American, his parents having moved to New York City from Peru in the 1970s. They lived many professional lives to keep their family afloat. His father worked on factory lines, drove an ice cream truck in Queens, then a taxi, and eventually settled into a job as a machinista job considered essential like the workers at Smithfield. He worked until the day he got sick with COVID-19, and died a few weeks later at 72. Work was part of his identity, Vargas said.

"He relished the American dream," Vargas reflected. "If it wasn't for the American dream, I think he would have lost will, and that's what kept him going."

And as he grew older, Vargas said it only grew sweeter.

"He found this deep, deep love and sense of joy in the next generation, my daughter and my nieces and nephews, my brother's daughter and sons," he said. "When you get to see sort of like the fruits of the labor of [his] generation and what has happened...it was really a beautiful thing to see."

He sees that story in many immigrant families across Nebraska with loved ones working in essential industries like meatpacking. That makes his grief feel bigger than himself, Vargas said: it’s a call to protect families that aren’t so different from his from the trauma of COVID-19.

"Both of my parents in particular always reminded me that there's injustice in this world, and you have to work very, very hard...but you can't leave others behind."

Alongside Children of Smithfield and other family groups, he's calling for more testing for workers, expanded sick leave, PPE, and transparency from the state around how many cases impacted plants have. Nebraska doesn’t release information about individual businesses, but at least 3,000 workers have gotten sick with 11 deaths.

The Children of Smithfield and other organizers say they’ll keep speaking out until working conditions improve for their parents.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2020" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in June.


NET News and our Harvest Public Media partners are reporting as part of the national “America Amplified: Election 2020” project that aims to listen to and amplify the voices of those in diverse communities across the nation. Learn more at americaamplified.org and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.