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Meatpacking Plant Working Conditions Stoke Spread Of Coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic is closing down meatpacking facilities across the country. At least a dozen plants in eight states have either closed or reduced hours in response to outbreaks. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports that workers at these plants tend to be among the most vulnerable - refugees and first-generation immigrants. And while governments have deemed them essential, some say they are not being treated that way.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Seventy-eight-year-old Saul Sanchez worked at the beef plant in Greeley, Colo., for more than 30 years. His daughter, Beatriz Rangel, says her Mexican-born father had come to the U.S. to support his family.

BEATRIZ RANGEL: I want to say this in Spanish. (Non-English language spoken). He is so grateful to have a job. No matter where it was, he was never going to fail.

RUNYON: In late March, Sanchez came down with a fever and fatigue. Within days he was admitted to the hospital and placed on a ventilator. With COVID-19 beginning to spread, Rangel felt she needed to tell the plant's owner, Brazilian meat industry giant JBS about her dad.

RANGEL: When I called to let them know that he was sick and to let the rest of the employees know that he was positive for COVID-19, I got no response.

RUNYON: By the time Sanchez entered the hospital, the disease was sweeping through the plant. A local public health investigation found more than 270 of its workers and their family members showed up to clinics with symptoms during March. The Greeley plant closed April 13. Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, which represents some JBS workers, says meatpacking companies were completely unprepared and slow to respond.

KIM CORDOVA: When this came over to the United States, these industries that knew that they were going to stay open, and that they were critical and essential - they should have had masks for these workers.

RUNYON: A spokesman for JBS declined an interview for this story. In written statements, the company has said it quickly implemented social distancing within its plants where possible, and provided adequate protective equipment for employees. But Cordova says this pandemic has laid bare inequalities that food processing workers face every day.

CORDOVA: Most packing house workers do not have paid sick leave or paid family leave.

ERIC ISHIWATA: And there is no escaping the fact that people are going to be standing shoulder to shoulder in certain concentrated areas.

RUNYON: Ethnic studies professor Eric Ishiwata studies meatpacking communities at Colorado State University. He says the modern meatpacking workforce is predominantly Latino immigrants and East African refugees. And just as COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color in cities, he says the same is true in rural communities where meat is produced. Workers tend to live in cramped housing and carpool to work, increasing the likelihood of exposure.

ISHIWATA: And so, all of this - I think - leads to a mix that makes these workers really vulnerable.

RUNYON: Despite the risks within the plant, Ishiwata says in talking to workers during this crisis, he hears a desire to keep showing up for work. For a steady paycheck, sure - the starting wage is between 16 and $18 an hour - but also a sense of pride. That sentiment rings true for Beatriz Rangel. Even in the hospital, her father, Saul Sanchez, was wondering if the plant needed him.

RANGEL: He was the light and heart of our family. Six kids - thirteen grandkids - and now he's gone.

RUNYON: Sanchez was the first worker at the plant to die from complications of COVID-19 on April 7. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. I also host KUNC’s live community storytelling events.