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COVID-19 cases, deaths among meatpacking workers 3 times worse than thought

Five large meatpackers fell staggeringly short of their duty to protect their workers during the pandemic, with at least 269 deaths and at least 59,000 infections from COVID-19 among their employees — roughly three times more than thought — said Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Wednesday. “Our investigation found that the Trump administration’s response to the outbreaks in meatpacking plants was wholly insufficient.”

Trump appointees at the Labor Department decided against issuing an emergency rule during the early months of the pandemic to require meatpackers to take specific precautions, said a report written by the subcommittee’s Democratic staffers. At the same time, companies kept plants operating, with workers often standing shoulder to shoulder on the production floor and with few safeguards in place against the airborne virus.

The report called for meatpackers to assure that workers are vaccinated against COVID-19 and for OSHA “to ensure the success of vaccine mandates through regulatory standards.” A former OSHA official, labor law expert Debbie Berkowitz, said she expected the agency would soon issue an emergency temporary standard that would require workers at large companies to be vaccinated or to get tested weekly.

Most meatpackers kept their coronavirus counts secret, although outbreaks forced some of the largest slaughterhouses to slow or stop production temporarily in spring 2020. Five of the dominant beef and pork processors — JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef — provided documentation to the subcommittee, which it used to compile a one-year tally of at least 59,000 infections and at least 269 deaths of employees, numbers it called “substantially higher than previously reported.”

“The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse,” said the report, since meatpacker data in many instances did not include cases confirmed by off-site testing or self-reported by employees.

The best independent source of the coronavirus’ impact among meat workers has been FERN’s COVID-19 Mapping Project, which relied on public reports of outbreaks. With meatpackers not required to report COVID-19 data, an OSHA official told the subcommittee, the agency had “relied at least in part on data from FERN to track worker infections and deaths,” and the subcommittee report cited FERN’s data as its baseline for previously reported cases. The numbers reported Wednesday by the five meatpackers were about three times higher than the numbers compiled by FERN.

FERN ended the mapping project last month due to the chronic lack of data from private companies and public health departments.

“Let’s be clear. The wildfire spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers was not inevitable. It was preventable,” said Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. “The meat industry decided to thumb their noses” at federal recommendations such as social distancing at work. More meatpacking workers died of COVID-19 in 18 months than died of work-related causes in the preceding 15 years, she said.

According to data provided by the meatpackers, Tyson Foods had 29,462 infections and 151 deaths; JBS USA had 12,859 infections and 62 deaths; Smithfield had 9,666 infections and 25 deaths; Cargill had 4,690 infections and 25 deaths; and National Beef had 2,470 infections and six deaths. The five companies account for 80% of beef production and 60% of pork production in America.

“What we have learned is staggering,” said Clyburn. “Had the Trump administration acted, these numbers could have been lower.”

President Trump issued an executive order in April 2020 “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations” during the pandemic, overriding state officials worried about coronavirus outbreaks.

On Tuesday, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and Tyson Foods announced that 96% of frontline workers at the company were vaccinated. The UFCW represents 26,000 Tyson workers.

To read the subcommittee report, click here.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.


Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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