For Margarita Heredia, it’s hard to imagine how the pork processing plant she’s worked in for 11 years could eradicate her coronavirus fears.
The JBS plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, about a 35-mile drive East from Ames, is like any other plant. People jammed on fast-moving lines process meat to keep shelves stocked and Americans fed across the country. Steps have been taken to increase sanitation and access to personal protective materials, but changing the structure of how the lines run is not a quick turnaround.
“If the company wants to make space between the workers it’s probably going to take them years,” said Heredia, whose plant has 34 confirmed cases.
Workers across the country shared similar sentiments in the press conference hosted Thursday by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million people. On that call, officials said plants are doing their part in sanitizing facilities, providing personal protective equipment, and instituting social distancing where possible. Now it’s time for federal action that should have come weeks ago.
“Our government is sitting there on their thumbs when it comes to these essential workers,” said Mark Lauritsen, UFCW International Vice President for Meatpacking Mark Lauritsen. “They deemed them essential, they need to take care of them.”
The union wants the government to declare these meat processing plant employees frontline workers. That status would insure them increased access to materials like face masks and shields, gloves and sanitary equipment afforded to healthcare and emergency response workers.
Over the last few weeks, the coronavirus has made rural communities and food processing plants Petri dishes for Covid-19. In Nebraska, Hall and Dawson’s counties have surpassed the state’s large metros in case totals with a JBS plant in Grand Island being tied to 237 cases as of Tuesday.
Officials with the UFCW, which represents about 3,900 workers in Nebraska, said nationwide, five of its members have died and 5,000 have either been infected or come into contact with an infected person.
The union’s already secured them a $4 per hour pay increase. That comes on top of a $600 bonus as well as more face masks, plastic shields between workers and increased sanitation. However, if they don’t get more help, workers fear the problem will only get worse.
“We put our health and our families’ health at risk every day going into work. Help us stay safe so we can do our job, helping to feed America,” said Itzel Goytia, a beef worker at a Cargill processing plant in Dodge City, Kansas.
Protecting workers also means protecting America’s food supply which has already taken a hit following plant outbreaks. At least 13 plants have had to close for some period of time, Lauritsen said. The closures affect 10% of beef production and a quarter of all pork production, he said. With no restaurants to sell to and limited refrigeration capacities at food banks, farmers have had to smash eggs, euthanize pigs and hold back cattle.
The result will probably be a spike in prices and shortages in some stores in the coming weeks.
“It will create some shortages in stores, there’s no doubt about it,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International President.
The effects, however, will continue long after as farmers are forced to produce less to sell their stock for higher prices to recoup on lost profits during the pandemic. The result, Perrone said, will likely be a rolling shortage problem as the country returns to the as yet determined state of normal. To soften that blow, both Perrone and Lauritsen said the government needs to keep people safe, otherwise production will slow as plants close.
So far plant closures have been voluntary, Lauritsen said. Plant owners and unions discuss current operating conditions and whether the facilities need sanitary overhauls.
However, union officials don’t want to close plants. They want to keep people employed and healthy so they can keep America’s food supply running. But they can’t feel confident that’s happening unless workers have increased access to protective materials.
“There’s stuff the government can do to make sure these workers are safe, and they need to do it yesterday. That’s what we’re really advocating for,” said Lauritsen. “This union is not going to advocate for all these plants to close down unless it absolutely needs to take place.