Washington Post | Opinion: They worked so we could eat: What we learned from the pandemic’s meatpacking calamity

Posted in In the News News

KI Fellow, Debbie Berkowitz is featured in a Washington Post editorial on the failure of meatpacking companies to protect their workers during the pandemic.

Meatpacking plants suffered terribly during the early stages of the pandemic. They quickly became epicenters of infection. The workers, largely minorities and immigrants, (new window) were deemed essential employees, which kept them on the job when others could work from home. Their plight should compel the industry, workers and government to ensure that mistakes that occurred then are not made again.Opinions to start the day, in your inbox. Sign up. (new window)

The latest evidence of this calamity comes from an Oct. 27 staff report (new window) by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, (new window) and from a hearing (new window) that day chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn (new window) (D-S.C.). The report says that among the five major meatpacking companies operating in the United States, at least 59,000 workers were infected during the first year of the pandemic, nearly three times the 22,700 estimated by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (new window), an investigative nonprofit that drew on public data. At least 269 meatpacking workers died of covid in the first year, the committee report said. “More workers have died from covid-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the last 15 years,” Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and a former senior official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2015, testified (new window) to the panel.

Why did it happen? The meatpacking workers were uniquely vulnerable. A Post investigation (new window) last year found meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers, and some employees were urged to continue working in crowded plants even while sick. The House committee said workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Amarillo, Tex., did not use social distancing. They were separated only by flimsy plastic bags on frames. In this plant, more than 1,900 workers — 49.8 percent of the workforce — got sick, and five employees died in the first year of the pandemic. A working paper (new window) from the U.S. Agriculture Department in September concluded the culprit in the industry overall was “the physical proximity of workers.”

The House committee faults the Trump administration’s OSHA for a “political decision” not to issue tougher regulations. Ms. Berkowitz also testified (new window) that the industry resisted mitigation measures called for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elsewhere. “When asked by CDC to list the protective measures they were implementing in their plants during the first few months of the pandemic, not one of over 100 meatpacking or poultry plants had implemented social distancing on the lines. Not one,” she said. In response to the committee report, meatpacking companies said (new window) they had spent millions of dollars to improve worker safety and conditions during the pandemic.

Much of the sickness and death (new window) in meatpacking came in the early chaos that also swept nursing homes and other institutions. Remember when hospital workers were gowned in plastic garbage bags? All of it leads to a valuable lesson: In a pandemic, take all available measures to mitigate as rapidly as possible. Inaction can be fatal.