Workers at meat-processing plants are having to make tough choices these days: go to work with fears of contracting or spreading COVID-19, or stay home and risk losing a job and health insurance.
That’s the dilemma one woman was in this week as she was scheduled to return to work at a plant on Chicago’s South Side.
Maria, who declined to give her last name out of fear of putting her job at risk, is an employee at Rose Packing, a meat-processing plant near Midway Airport. Last month, she was among dozens of employees who tested positive for COVID-19. Rose Packing shut down for two weeks.
Despite testing positive, Maria returned to the plant this week because she was expected at work.
“We told her that you’re still positive so they can’t force you to go back. They shouldn’t allow you to go back,” said Maria’s daughter, Celia, who also asked that her last name not be used.
Neither Rose Packing, nor its parent company, OSI Group, responded to WBEZ’s multiple requests for comment.
President Donald Trump issued an order for meat-processing plants to remain open during the pandemic, deeming them essential to the nation’s food supply. That’s raised concerns that people continue to work in facilities that have seen COVID-19 outbreaks.
Sometimes, local officials intervene. That’s what happened in Kane County, where the health department earlier this month ordered the temporary closing of a Smithfield Foods pork products plant after a COVID-19 outbreak.
The plant in far west suburban St. Charles suspended operations while it addressed cleaning, personal protection equipment for workers and other issues. The plant reopened this week, prompting one worker to express concern about returning.
“When I think about that, my stomach hurts,” said a female employee who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired.
The woman, who’s worked for Smithfield for more than two decades, said she felt she had no choice but to return to the plant. She said that, prior to the temporary shutdown, beard nets had been used as a sort of nose and mouth covering, social distancing guidelines were not being followed and one person was allowed to work despite having a 102-degree temperature.
“If I don’t go to work, they’ll say OK, but then I won’t have a job,” the woman said.
There’s been one confirmed COVID-19 death of a Smithfield worker in St. Charles. WBEZ talked to the families of two other workers at the plant who also died from coronavirus disease.
Illinois state Rep. Karina Villa, D-West Chicago, whose district includes the Smithfield plant, wants to see more safety measures at the plant.
“St. Charles deserves to know what was done to protect the workers of Smithfield,” she said.
Virginia-based Smithfield, which has plants in several states, released a statement saying:
“Both as individuals and as a company, we are deeply saddened by the passing of every one of the tens of thousands of Americans who have succumbed to COVID-19. We are grieving their losses, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones during this extremely difficult time. As we fight COVID-19 together with the rest of our industry and country, we are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from the virus in the workplace.”
The company has declined to give details on the coronavirus cases at its St. Charles plant. The same statement included, “Additionally, company policy is to not confirm COVID-19 cases in our facilities.”
A vulnerable immigrant workforce
Latino immigrants make up a large portion of the meat-processing workforce in the Chicago area, Indiana and around the country. U.S. census figures from 2014-2018 showed that Latinos were nearly half of the 7,250 meatpacking workers in Illinois, and 67% were foreign-born.
“If you look at just these numbers, most of them are people of color and immigrants,” said Hye Jin Rho, an economist at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., which released a report on meat processing workers shortly after Trump’s executive order.
At the time of its release, the report showed that more than 6,500 meat-processing workers nationwide had tested positive for COVID-19 and there had been more than 20 deaths.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the meatpacking industry has been notorious for these terrible working conditions and hazardous work on a daily basis,” Rho said.
Many meatpacking workers are keeping quiet about their safety concerns during the pandemic, according to experts.
“I’m afraid that some of our workers are not speaking up because of retaliation,” said Jesus Rivera, a case manager for Proteus, a national program that assists immigrant workers.
Rivera works from South Bend, Ind., not far from Logansport, where a COVID-19 outbreak forced the temporary shutdown of a Tyson pork-processing plant. The facility was closed last month after nearly 900 employees tested positive. It resumed limited operations his month after undergoing deep cleaning and installing plastic barriers at workstations.
Tyson spokeswoman Hli Yang said workers aren’t returning until they’ve been tested for the coronavirus.
The labor union for meatpacking workers around the country has been pressuring plants to improve safety during the pandemic. That includes demands for better protective equipment, daily testing for the virus and extra pay for workers, said Bob O’Toole, president of the Chicago-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546. The union represents workers at Rose Packing in Chicago and Smithfield in St. Charles.
But he said it’s a challenge to advocate for workers when union officials are not allowed inside plants.
“It’s almost a standard across the industry at this point. Any visitors — so, non-employees of a particular plant — are not allowed into the building just to prevent any spread,” O’Toole said.
Reporter Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana, the south suburbs and Chicago’s Southeast Side for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.