Paying for her coronavirus test, inhaling noxious chemicals and enduring a continued lack of transparency. That’s the experience of one employee inside one of Nebraska’s hardest-hit meatpacking plants who says employees are still afraid of the coronavirus’ spreading despite protections put in place.
“I never had a fever,” said Roberta Cáceres, a fake name to maintain her anonymity. “But I was diagnosed with Covid-19. I suffered it for a month, it was horrible and I feel like people are not aware of what’s going on inside the packing plants.”
Cáceresis an employee at the JBS beef plant in Grand Island and, like many of her peers, has concerns about the fate of her fellow workers’ health as food processing plants continue operating.
Last week Gov. Pete Ricketts advised county health departments not to publish case-specific data at meat-packing plants for “privacy issues,” unless permitted by the company. That creates even more uncertainty for many employees. The last known report associated with meat companies in Nebraska was 212 employees infected at the Tyson Foods facility in Madison County.
Companies are now performing strict tests as employees enter the facilities by measuring their temperatures to rule out whether he has fever or not. Cáceres says that’s laughable.
“Measurements are being taken at both the entrance and exit,” she said. “But I feel like there’s a misinformation about the virus and it’s believed to happen only with fever and it’s not. I’m sure I took the virus at the plant. My husband had a fever but I didn’t, we both suffered from muscle aches, loss of taste, shortness of breath and on supervisors they are just relying on taking the temperature,” she said.
A medical report was the only endorsement that she and her husband could be resting for the entire month of April. In that period, monetary compensation and the $4 hour increase were not reflected in any of the payments she received, so they had to go for the first time in their 22 years living in this country to apply for unemployment aid as well as short-term disability to cover their daily expenses.
In two weeks she received two payments and did not know whether it included the flat $600 unemployment boost offered by the federal government, her application to unemployment or her short-term disability. Her husband, on the other hand, received four payments for the month.
Cáceres blames companies for not informing employees on time about COVID-19 cases that already existed as early as March, until the scandal erupted in April of more than 237 infected cases at the JBS plant. By then Nebraska had at least 14 deaths associated with the coronavirus.
However, the company decided to take sanitary measures while part of the afternoon shift workers were present: spreading chlorine everywhere, she said.
While chlorine is commonly used in households and industries to disinfect and keep the site free of germs and bacteria, when used in greater quantity, people can inhale the fumes, affecting their immune system, bloodstream and heart. However, there are no reports of people affected by inhalation of this chemical.
JBS managers decided to spread the halogen to decrease any COVID-19 particles at their plant, according to Cáceres.
“We were suffocated by the amount of chlorine we were breathing,” she said. “Perhaps that also contributed to people’s immune system deteriorating and the virus can enter the body. Good thing they’re more controlled now.”
Fear still persists
Cáceres says that illiterate people work in the plant so it is difficult to follow written instructions.
“It is not enough to put posters, you have to report better and in different languages for the message to arrive,” she said.
During March and April, unemployment claims figures soared. It now ranks at 44,081 applications. However, Cáceres explains, many did not apply to unemployment benefits because they do not know how to use electronic devices and had little assistance.
“They are also afraid of the hunt against immigrants,” she said.
Financial reasons also keep many from getting tested for COVID-19. Gov. Ricketts announced testing would be completely free through the state’s new TestNebraska system, but Cáceres said the situation has been different inside plants.
“Workers comment that several packers ask their employees to get tested but they must afford the $170 expense,” she said. Cáceres and her husband were charged for the test.
She stressed the importance of informing workers about the use of materials to protect themselves. ”
We can take the virus anywhere,” she said. “People should also collaborate in this process of protection. It’s not just about thinking you have the virus when you have a fever, I didn’t have it and I tested positive,” he said.
When asked if she supports plant closure, she believes that JBS and packers have done the best they can do.
“Now it’s that they’re taking action, after a month, it’s still not enough,” she said. “But I think if they close all the plants then what are we going to eat? Violence is going to start, people are going to kill the accommodation for food. It’s already been over with the toilet role. I don’t think it needs to be closed.”
The truth is that, although there are opinions found in the same guild of packing plants and slaughterhouses, the shortage of animal protein as well as the price hike in some supermarkets and Latino groceries in Omaha are already being noticed.