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COVID cases in meatpacking plants impacted workers and their rural communities


At the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 swept through many of the nation's meatpacking plants. Now workers and their towns are working on ways to introduce reforms and enhanced safety in these plants. Thing is, though, they face some significant hurdles. Iowa Public Radio's Natalie Krebs reports.

NATALIE KREBS, BYLINE: Meatpacking plants were some of the first places to experience large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks. The virus tore through production lines, where workers, who are frequently first-generation immigrants, stand shoulder to shoulder, working long hours on fast-paced lines. What's clear is the aftermath of those outbreaks had a profound impact both on workers and on the rural meatpacking communities they live in. David Peters is a sociology professor at Iowa State University and conducted a survey on the pandemic's effect on Iowa's rural communities. He says residents in meatpacking communities were hit the hardest.

DAVID PETERS: They suffered, in particular economically by having reduced working hours, wage cuts, benefit losses, losing the jobs. And, of course, health impacts - much more of them were hospitalized.

KREBS: It greatly affected immigrants like Amner Martinez, whose Guatemalan family has worked in a central Iowa Tyson pork plant for the past two decades. He credits the job with helping to pull them out of poverty. Martinez says he didn't even know how sick his 74-year-old father was with COVID-19 until he was recovering.

AMNER MARTINEZ: Apparently, he was really sick. And he said that he was, like, on his knees, basically talking to God.

KREBS: In the nearly two years since the virus swept through facilities, major meatpacking companies like Tyson Foods say they've invested heavily in an effort to protect their front-line workers. Claudia Coplein is the chief medical officer for Tyson Foods.

CLAUDIA COPLEIN: We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars to transform our facilities with protective measures, everything from temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social-distance monitors, masking and our always-on testing program.

KREBS: But a recent congressional subcommittee investigation found that the nation's five largest meat processing companies should have acted quicker to protect workers early in the pandemic and noted that many pushed back against public health guidance at the time. It also concluded that federal regulators under the Trump administration provided minimal oversight of the plants during the outbreaks.

Soon after taking office, Joe Biden signed an executive order setting worker health and safety as a national priority, promising to increase federal safety regulations and plant inspections. This has earned him support from meatpacking worker unions but not necessarily from plant executives. Occupational health and safety experts say both Congress and the local lawmakers still aren't doing enough to create a stronger framework to protect workers from future outbreaks. Claudia Corwin is with the University of Iowa.

CLAUDIA CORWIN: Very, very few states have actual protections for vulnerable food system workers in the event of public health emergencies like the COVID pandemic. And that needs to come at a legislative level.

KREBS: In the meantime, top Republican lawmakers often continue to defend meatpacking plant owners and say the focus needs to be on keeping the lines running. At a congressional hearing in October, Iowa Republican Marianette Miller-Meeks cautioned about supply chain disruptions that have increased meat supplies across the country.


MARIANETTE MILLER-MEEKS: We must not make it worse. When we do, it is those in the margins, low-income families and rural Americans, who feel it the most.

KREBS: With the pandemic still gripping the nation, she argues the focus now needs to be less on meatpacking plant owners and more on getting meatpacking plant workers fully vaccinated. For NPR News, I'm Natalie Krebs in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOON CAKE'S "CAST THE ROUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Krebs is the health reporter for Iowa Public Radio.