Many of the workers across the country are working elbow to elbow six days a week, eight hours a day. For them, social distancing in the workplace is but a dream.
I've spent the past few months interviewing essential workers in the southern United States, primarily in Arkansas, who are instrumental to feeding this country. They hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Myanmar, the Marshall Islands and beyond. Workers I spoke with, many undocumented, told me of fleeing the depredations of climate change, genocide and war to come to the US, where they pick tomatoes, onions, lettuce and kill the hogs and chickens that will later grace Americans' tables. They spend their days pulling weeds from among rows of fields of rice, putting frozen chicken breasts in line so that a machine can cut them into chicken nuggets, and washing blood from the feet of freshly killed chickens.
In an executive order signed in April, President Donald Trump deemed the workers, mostly immigrants and many undocumented, supplying our food to be essential, but he has left Covid-19 safety measures in the hands of companies, some of which have resisted transparency on issues as basic as informing workers of the number of Covid-19 infections at their work site. Rather than trusting companies to take voluntary guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Trump should mandate that companies comply with specific Covid-19 safety measures, which the Department of Labor is authorized to do on an emergency basis. As we have seen, when safety standards aren't enforced, essential workers die.
The workers I interviewed were proud that they had been able to support their families by working on farms and in meatpacking plants, but they reported that many of their employers weren't following guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Although Trump and other politicians have repeatedly told us that essential workers are heroes and warriors, the workers I spoke to feel like they are expendable. For essential workers, all praise rings hollow if it isn't followed by action that will help save their lives.
Companies insist they are taking appropriate steps to protect their workers. For example, David Jackson, COO of Simmons Foods, an Arkansas-based producer of poultry and wet pet food whose employees I spoke with, said in a statement e-mailed through the company's director of communications that the company had expanded common areas and installed protective barriers between work stations and was notifying any worker who had been in close contact with a Covid-19-positive colleague (though he would not address directly the question of how the company determined which employees to inform). Jackson wrote further that Simmons was "working diligently every single day to evaluate ongoing efforts, make improvements following evolving CDC and OSHA guidance, and ensure our facilities have adequate PPE, hand sanitizing solution and other necessary supplies."
But workers at meat processing plants, including Simmons, described having little or no social distancing on the job, simply because enforcing social distancing would require slowing down production. And if production slows, companies will see a decrease in profits and consumers will have to pay more for meat.
These workers feel that their lives are more important than profits and cheap meat, and we should listen to them.
As ProPublica has reported, meat and poultry processing workers rarely get paid when they are sick and many companies have a disciplinary point system where workers are punished for calling in sick. Even before coronavirus, there was a shortage of workers in the meat processing industry, which is understandable given that the work is harsh and low-paid and frequently carried out by refugees, whose entry into the US has been limited by the Trump administration.
In the absence of adequate leadership from politicians and companies to protect their safety, essential workers have begun to organize to demand sick leave and essential benefits. However, as they try to change companies' safety policies, they continue to work in conditions that they are afraid will lead to death. An undocumented worker who I spoke to in Ft. Smith, Arkansas who has spent a decade processing chicken at Simmons Food, said, "I pray to God I don't get the virus." However, she planned to keep working to support her five children because, "Necessity makes us do it. I'm old, and I don't speak English. I don't know how to drive. There is nothing left for me to do but work."
These essential workers share some common complaints about work conditions. However, many workers are undocumented and afraid of being deported for speaking the truth about them. Farmworkers, 26% of whom are undocumented, according to Pew, reported to me that their hours had been cut or were erratic, thus putting them in a position where they couldn't afford to buy enough food for their families. Even those who are documented told me they had multiple family members working at the same company who they were afraid would be fired if they spoke to the media about work conditions. In one case, I interviewed a husband and wife who both worked for a poultry processing plant, and they worried about who would take care of their four children if they both got coronavirus.
Essential workers complained that employers either didn't provide protective gear like masks, or that they rationed such gear. If Trump can issue an executive order to keep meat processors working, he should also ensure that the country is producing enough face masks to protect such workers. Workers told me stories of employers who didn't inform them of colleagues who tested positive for Covid-19, who diluted soap with water to save money, who pressured workers who called in sick to still come to work, who told workers that if they spoke to the media about conditions at work, they would be fired.
The men and women I spoke with voiced their belief that companies valued profits over their lives: alongside prisons, meat processing plants have been among the sites where coronavirus has spread most quickly in the US. Annie Grant, a meat processing worker in Georgia who had a fever for two days and yet was told to return to work by management, later died of coronavirus at a hospital. A spokesman for Grant's employer, Tyson Foods, told the New York Times that the company was taking workers' temperatures before they entered and were implementing social distancing measures.
Grant's story illustrates the pressures workers face and how company actions often contribute to the spread of coronavirus and the death of workers. If President Trump truly believes that essential workers are heroes, he should act to ensure that such workers don't die needlessly.