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Share Public Health Transcript: COVID-19, Impact on Meatpacking Workers

Season 1 Episode 28

Hannah Shultz Welcome to Share Public Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center’s podcast connecting you to public health topics, issues, and colleagues throughout our region and the country highlighting that we all share in public health. Thank you for tuning into this series focusing on COVID-1 and its impacts on our region of Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Hello, I’m Hannah Shultz and I work with the Midwestern Public Health Training Center at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Today we’re going to talk about COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry. This concern received a lot of attention recently and is a particular concern for our region. We have meatpacking plants in Iowa and the huge majority of the country’s pork comes from Iowa. A big percentage of Iowa’s positive COVID-19 cases are linked to these plants. There have also been outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country, including the other states our training center serves Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.

We’re going to start today’s conversation talking with Dr. Nicole Novak. Nicole is an assistant research scientist in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. She is passionate about community health in Iowa and uses epidemiologic and community engaged research methods to examine historical structural and policy influences on the health of immigrants, Latinos, and rural residents. In a few minutes we’ll also hear from Andrew Bribriesco. For the last 11 years, Andrew has been an attorney in Eastern Iowa. He has dedicated the majority of his practice to representing meatpacking workers. Andrew regularly teaches continuing legal education classes and is an author of a workers compensation law treatise. Thank you both for being with us.

Dr. Nicole Novak Thanks, Hannah.

Andrew Bribriesco Thank you.

Hannah Shultz Nicole, can you start off by helping us with a little bit of context who works in meatpacking plants, and where are we packing plants located?

Dr. Nicole Novak Yeah, meatpacking is actually a very old industry in the United States. It used to be that meatpacking plants were actually in the center of cities because that’s where people needed the most meat. People would actually transport livestock from the rural places where they were raised to the city and they would be slaughtered there. Even back in the early 20th century, many of the workers in meatpacking plants were immigrants. There was a famous book, The Jungle, about the conditions that people worked in and meatpacking plants in Chicago, for example and they have been challenging and unsafe places to work in many cases for a very long time.

There have been shifts throughout the 20th century. For example, the rise of refrigeration made it possible to move meat slaughtering back to rural communities closer to where the livestock is raised and then just to transport the processed meat to consumers and then there were other shifts, not just in the location of meatpacking plants, but also in who worked there. Meatpacking used to be more of a middle-class profession. Many of the workers were US-born white workers and there were relatively strong unions representing meatpacking workers up through the end of the 20th century and then there started to be a lot of changes. Unions began to lose some of their power and the workforce also, at that time shifted as wages dropped meatpacking workers shifted to be disproportionately immigrants, increasingly refugees in the last 20 years and also many many workers of color.

At this point today there are 297,000 people working in meat processing in the US. They are mostly men. There are 27 percent women. 7 percent of meat packing workers nationwide are Hispanic or Latino, 17 percent are black or african-american. Both of those proportions are higher than the general population of the US and then also percent of meatpacking workers are Asian. It’s also important to note that about one third of meatpacking workers are non-citizens. This can be people with a wide range of immigration statuses from people who have work permits or visas, maybe temporary protective status if they’re from a country that has been granted a particular protected status, or people even with deferred action for childhood arrivals or DACA and then of course some meatpacking workers are unauthorized you’re undocumented immigrants which is an important issue for people’s health and safety.

Meatpacking workers are a wide range of ages This is relevant for the topic we’re talking about today of COVID. The median age is 42, but there’s a large proportion of meatpacking workers that are 50 and above and starting to be in that age category that is at higher risk for bad outcomes with COVID. As I mentioned, meatpacking plants are usually at this point in rural or mid-sized rural communities so they’re often farther from the bigger cities that have more resources for example. immigrant communities in terms of legal resources other service providers with a wide variety of language access etc.

Hannah Shultz Thanks Nicole, that’s a lot of really good background for us. You’ve done a lot of research on meatpacking plants in rural communities and rural health. What are the health concerns that these communities have?

Dr. Nicole Novak Well first I’ll say I’m really glad that Andrew Bribriesco is going to be on the podcast today because he specializes in a lot of the different health issues that come up for meatpacking workers while they’re at work. Meatpacking is a very fast workplace. There’s a lot of risk of acute injuries as well as repetitive use injuries. People are doing hard work over and over and can develop injuries over time. The other thing that we’re seeing recently is that meatpacking plants are places where people are close together, are working quickly, and don’t always have frequent opportunities to partake in the social distancing or hygiene practices that are recommended right now during coronavirus. We’re seeing in Iowa many outbreaks that are affecting meatpacking workers.

I guess the last thing I’ll say is another major concern is access to health insurance and health care. While there is some insurance provided by employers, there’s a lot of reasons that meatpacking workers still might face barriers to timely care that is culturally and linguistically appropriate to them. Combined with other stressors and fears that are affecting immigrant communities throughout our country, there’s a lot of reasons people might delay seeking health care when they’re sick.

Hannah Shultz Could you talk a little bit about what the outbreaks are looking like in meatpacking plants in our state and what are some of the challenges of people working in meatpacking plants related to COVID-19?

Dr. Nicole Novak Advocates close to communities who work in meatpacking plants have started raising concerns about the particular risk to meatpacking workers, I think over a month ago, at this point. There was a case at a meatpacking plant in Ottumwa, Iowa and people started to point out, you know, everyone’s close together, there’s a lot of reasons that just could create conditions for an outbreak.

The first outbreak we saw in Iowa was in Columbus Junction. That plant temporarily suspended operations a few weeks ago and cases in that community have continued to grow up to 200 cases and two deaths that we know of so far. There’ve also been outbreaks at the National Beef plant in Tama, Iowa. More recently Waterloo, Iowa has had over 180 cases from the Tyson plant there and there’s growing numbers of cases and in Perry, Iowa there’s been proactive testing that has identified even asymptomatic cases in Eagle Grove, Iowa as well as other communities. We’re seeing meatpacking communities emerge as one of the really high-risk locations and communities for COVID in Iowa right now.

Hannah Shultz Nicole, one of the things that we’re seeing now is people are not quite sure where to get their information and how to get their information, what trusted sources are out there. Is this also true with workers and packing plants? How might it be compounded?

Dr. Nicole Novak Yeah, I think what we’ve been hearing from the community is, as with a lot of places in the United States, there’s a lot of misinformation about what coronavirus is and how to prevent it circulating in immigrant and meatpacking communities. There’s also understandably a lot of confusion about how to access care and testing. Coronavirus testing is very limited for any Iowan but there’s extra layers of complexity within that for people who do not speak English or have unstable insurance status and are afraid of having to pay out of pocket for their testing or for their healthcare. There’s a lot of people working to make sure that information about coronavirus is disseminated in lots of different languages, but there’s still a lot of work left to do to make sure that that information reaches the communities that need it.

Hannah Shultz There’s also been a lot more focus on public health than we’re used to seeing. Why does all of this matter to public health and why should public health be paying specific attention to what’s going on in meatpacking plants?

Dr. Nicole Novak Public health, ideally, is about prevention. It’s about not just making sure that people don’t die or don’t have severe illness when they do get sick but hopefully preventing people from getting sick in the first place, and there’s a lot of ways we can work to prevent morbidity and mortality in public health. We can promote individual level behavior changes and then we can also think about the conditions of our community, the way our society is set up, and how those social circumstances can also predispose people to illness.

In the case of COVID and coronavirus, we’ve thought a lot about those individual behaviors you know things like hand-washing things like distancing from people socially or physically but what we’re seeing increasingly is we really need to be paying attention to who is able to put those individual levels behavior change recommendations into practice. People who are in these essential injured industries, people who need to keep going to work in order to support their family, it’s a lot harder for them to stay six feet away from other people. It’s a lot harder for them to avoid being exposed to this virus. I think public health has a great toolkit for thinking not just about telling individual people that can each change their behavior but to think about, how can we set it up safe communities, safe workplaces so that we support people in taking on these behaviors that preserve their health, the health of their family, and all of the community as a whole.

Hannah Shultz Thanks Nicole, I think that provides a really good segue into the conversation that we can have with Andrew. Andrew, for our listeners who don’t know much about meatpacking and much about meatpacking workers can you explain what a meatpacking plant looks like and why it might be a risky place for coronavirus transmission?

Andrew Bribriesco Yes, I’ll do my best. It’s no surprise why meatpacking work is done by largely immigrants, the percentages that Nicole provided, it’s because it’s a tough job. At the Columbus Junction plant, for example, there’s over 1,000 workers there. These workers are not able to…there’s no way they could perform their job with the appropriate amount of social distancing that’s being recommended by the CDC and OSHA guidelines. The quick example the electric knife you’re working within one and a half feet from the other person and you’re working at a fast pace as Nicole mentioned.

The bottom line for a lot of these meatpacking plants are production speed. In terms of how you work, it’s fast, it’s hard labor. The injuries that come out of there, it makes it one of the most risk for orthopedic injuries and other types of illnesses. It’s no surprise that one of the first things that Governor Reynolds did was shut down gyms.

I mean if you think about the ability to spread this disease when you’re sweating and you’re working hard, that’s what a meatpacking plant is on a larger scale. And besides being there for 8 to 12 hours depending on your shift, you’re also going to be congregating in a cafeteria for example. These are all places where the [recommendation to not be] around ten people is just not possible. It’s a picture that it’s hard to explain, prone to spread this to spread COVID.

Hannah Shultz The CDC and OSHA provided really early guidance on how to mitigate COVID transmission risk in workplaces. Again, washing hands, using personal protective equipment, adding additional space between workers. Why did it take so long for Iowa’s meatpacking plants to begin implementing some of these measures?

Andrew Bribriesco It was not required. The OSHA guidelines were just exactly what it sounds like: they were guidelines. The guidelines specifically state that this is not providing a legal obligation to meatpacking plants. When you’re left to the individual state requirements because the national–the OSHA is not providing these federal requirements and the state isn’t doing anything, you’re leaving it up to the individual plant. As I mentioned before, the number one thing these plants care about was production and producing.

I just tell you a quick example that before the closure on April 6th, 2020 at the Columbus Junction plant there was no PPE provided to these workers. There was no decrease in the speed. They were doing some temperature checks but one of my clients told me that because the line was backed up the person who is doing the temperature checks just told everybody to come on in. Even the mitigating step of temperature checks wasn’t even being followed to the T. In short, there is no requirements from either state or federal government.

Hannah Shultz What are some other ways that the meatpacking industry enables the spread of COVID?

Andrew Bribriesco One of the things that touches upon the demographics that Nicole highlighted is the language and cultures that sort of makes it a melting pot in these areas. Many of them aren’t citizens and many of them don’t necessarily want to speak up when they believe their health is in jeopardy. Speaking with some of my clients, they kind of felt something was wrong but it’s hard to give that voice. I asked one of my clients “Why didn’t you speak up?” and the answer was, “We’ve done it before and they don’t listen [spanish], they don’t care.” This is just a heightening of what has already been happening in these meat packing plants in terms of safety.

I mean it’s no surprise, you know, there’s ways to prevent orthopedic injuries before [they happen] and things could be changed sometimes they don’t. The line is the most important thing. Just like in those cases, I think that Tyson just kind of wanted to put their-Tyson and other meatpacking plants wanted to put their head in the sand and just keep producing. There’s some of that going on as well, as in the situation that happened at least in Columbus Junction, supervisors were telling people if somebody was taken away because they were a positive symptomatic they weren’t telling other people why certain workers were being taken off the floor. I mean that’s just information and knowledge that an employer should be telling its employees.

Hannah Shultz What can employees do if they get COVID-19? Is there any recourse against employers?

Andrew Bribriesco There’s a couple of things. First, if somebody gets COVID-19 from their employment, workers compensation laws do apply. They should be entitled to medical care. The worker shouldn’t have to even spend one cent on the test itself. If there’s any hospital stay or if there’s any time when they’re off work or, god forbid, any permanent damage, the employer is responsible for compensating that worker. In terms of the unemployment aspect, if there’s not a safe work environment, unemployment law says a person can quit and qualify for unemployment benefits if that’s not changed.

Now we’re sort of in an interesting gray area with what happens to workers who are fearful of contracting COVID-19, but there’s all these mitigating steps so those are some things that we’re just going to have to figure out in the future with what’s going to happen to these workers.

Hannah Shultz We first recorded this podcast a little over a week ago. While we were producing it to release, President Trump used the Defense Production Act to order meatpacking plants to stay open, so we wanted to come back together to ask you, Andrew and Nicole, what this really means given the conversation we had a few days ago. What recourse do workers have? What does this mean legally for people who work in the packing plants who might be afraid of getting COVID-19 while at work, or who may have recovered from COVID-19 and need to go back to work?

Andrew Bribriesco Well that’s a good question. I think there’s a couple of steps that we have to get before it would affect a worker’s remedies under the law. One, whether President Trump was actually acting within the confines of the Constitution, whether he can actually implement this executive order. I know he did implement it, but whether it’s constitutional is a different question and presumptively if it is constitutional, whether it applies to state laws is also up in the air.

Workers compensation law is a state-by-state system. Unemployment law is a state-by-state system. I guess that minimum, if it does apply to federal law, then it would insulate companies from OSHA violation and finds that they could get under federal OSHA law, but under state law whether that applies or not it would be questionable. For workers compensation, for example, if it does apply to state law it immunes companies from damages and penalties and I don’t think workers compensation would even be considered a damage or penalty.

Likewise, unemployment, I also would not believe that a court would interpret damages and penalties to apply to unemployment benefits so it is possible that this law could apply to civil action, class actions, and other sort of state court law but I don’t necessarily believe that it would it would be interpreted to include workers compensation or unemployment benefits. But just like the virus itself is novel, work is sort of novel on legal grounds, but those would be the sort of the analytical steps that a court or lawyers would be looking at.

Hannah Shultz Trump had said that if there are legal challenges that his administration would side with the employers but it sounds like some what you just said that that’s legally questionable and potentially unconstitutional and more likely be challenged. What does it mean practically that these messages are already out there? Governor Reynolds, the Governor of Iowa, has also said people will lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t go back to work and there are a lot of these messages that really are anti-worker and scary for workers who are working in these essential jobs and meatpacking plants, so practically does that matter if it’s unconstitutional?

Andrew Bribriesco From my experience, Pandora’s Box has already opened up, the words of the governor have already sent a message telling workers they need to get back or they’ll lose their benefits. Now, Governor Reynolds’ words aren’t exactly correct because under unemployment law specifically, Iowa Administrative Code 871-24.26 allows a worker to get unemployment benefits if they leave for unsafe working conditions, unlawful working conditions, or intolerable or detrimental working conditions. There is a legal safety hatch for workers who are presented in these intolerable conditions.

However, practically speaking, when a worker is hearing these words, they’re not necessarily thinking about what potentially they could have because I’ve consulted with some of these workers who don’t necessarily think they’re going back into a safe working condition. However, when I consult them I say I think we have a legal argument under Iowa Administrative Code however the length it takes and whether the worker is going to also be successful is up in the air because, remember, an administrative law judge has to interpret what is going on in this particular person’s case and see whether it applies to that situation and I think the overall rhetoric it’s not clear whether that will be the case whether a judge will actually find in favor of the workers.

I wouldn’t be able to give that solid recommendation to a worker at this point and I think when it comes down to providing for their family or going back to risk or injury, many people choose to go back to work, because their family is number one. Factually speaking I think many people are going back to work in unsafe conditions with potential PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and overall fear because they don’t want to lose their paycheck and they live paycheck to paycheck whether this doesn’t seem like it would be good for the mental health of the community and then overall I think it takes away the dignity of the work.

Hannah Shultz Since we last talked, the testing in Iowa has increased quite a bit and many of the counties that have been testing now have over a thousand confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is a huge, huge increase. Some have more than a thousand cases, so the fear of going back to these environments is very real. Nicole do you have ideas of what some of that public health consequences of you know pushing people to go back to work?

Dr. Nicole Novak Yeah, I think as Andrew mentioned, we’re hearing a lot of reports of workers being really scared to return to work and it’s not an abstract fear. It’s often that people who know people that they worked with day to day got sick and in some cases died from this illness.

We talk about anticipatory stress in public health. That sort of vigilance or fear of something that that may happen to you and I think that’s something that can really be hard on someone and their mental health, especially folks who are used to being the provider for their family and take a lot of pride in taking care of the people they love, I think it’s a really tough circumstance for folks. Of course not just for the head of household, but for all the people back at home who are worried about them and are worried about themselves getting sick. Not all these families, but some live in multi-generational households where there might be elders who are at risk of exposure. Yeah I think it’s a timeliness of a lot of fear and I think the message that policy sends has implications for folks’ mental health, too.

When there’s policies that kind of explicitly put people at more risk I think that that sends a message that there’s not a lot of support for them and that’s hard on people, too. I read a lot of web forums in Spanish in Iowa, and there’s people who speak many languages who are affected by these policies, but the ones I’ve seen in Spanish, people say pretty explicitly “Oh it seems like they don’t care about us.” I think those are things that matter for folks well-being. It’s sad and frustrating to see.

Hannah Shultz This is a question for both of you now: what can public health do about this? What’s our role in thinking about risk and meatpacking plants?

Dr. Nicole Novak Yeah, if we think about, you know the role of public health and in promoting well-being for all people in our communities, I think there’s ways that people in public health can draw attention to the risks that meatpacking workers are facing, and also advocate for changes that preserve their health and safety.

You know something I want to be careful about, someone said to me a couple weeks ago “Well they’re essential workers so you know we can’t do anything about it you know if they don’t work it’ll mess up the food supply and that will cause problems for society so they just need to keep working.” The truth is it’s a much, much more nuanced situation than that and there’re a lot of ways that people’s health and safety can be taken into account and prioritized, as it should be. There are ways that meatpacking work can be adapted to preserve the health and well-being of workers and also workers can be empowered to know their rights and know that they aren’t sundered they’re not obligated to work in conditions that they don’t believe to be safe. In terms of adaptations at meat processing plants, Hannah, you mentioned some of the CDC and OSHA guidelines. There are ways that outside pressure could make those guidelines more than just guidelines and could actually require meatpacking plants to protect their workers more.

Again, that includes, from the very beginning, just not having people work who are sick and making sure that they get paid when they’re not working. It can include actual physical changes to the workspace. Things like physical barriers wherever possible automatic doors so that people aren’t touching things it can also include administrative changes. Staggering the shifts, really paying attention to leave policies, extra wash breaks, more opportunities for physical distancing in addition to physical barriers, and then of course protective equipment. We’re starting to see some meatpacking plants in Iowa initiate some of these changes, but in many cases it’s too late. Workers are sick and some workers have even died.

Another thing that we haven’t really talked about as much as that this extends beyond the workplace. Workers have families, workers live in communities, workers carpool with other people, and so really thinking about people in context. All the people that were all connected to we’re all linked lives those are other ways that public health can really get involved in thinking about preserving well-being for whole communities.

I think education is another huge part of the picture, but making sure that everyone is getting accurate information about coronavirus and how it’s spread and also about their rights as workers is really important. That information should be in the language that they prefer in whatever format they prefer so some people prefer to get that information may be through audio or video, others would prefer to read it. Ideally, from organizations or sources that they trust.

Hannah Shultz You suggested or recommended, Nicole, including, staggering starting times and giving more space between workers. These seem like things to me that would benefit health and safety at all times, not only when there’s a pandemic. I’m wondering, a lot of the kind of inequities we’re seeing in terms of rates of who’s getting sick and who’s dying, a lot of times they’re just highlighting inequities that already existed and they’re not new to those of us who are paying attention to these things. I’m curious, Nicole or Andrew, are some of these recommendations that Nicole just mentioned things that advocates have been asking for for a long time or the things that are just coming up given the current situation?

Andrew Bribriesco I say that slowing the line down is something that people have been advocating for a very long time but it’s very important in this context, because we could have less workers as a particular shift and we could have you know not as many workers in tight quarters. Those are things that would slow down production, but at the same time it would help decrease the spread of COVID-19. I’ll just say, talking about what, just responding a little bit to what Nicole mentioned, these are things that I wish had been done before. There’s still potentially going to be another wave. They’re saying that maybe there’s going to be a bigger wave and it’s going to have more impact, but Pandora’s Box had already been opened.

A lot of these workers that I’m talking to, even with giving them masks and having Plexiglas put in between the cafeteria tables, this isn’t enough to really calm people who are really scared. People are still very scared to go back to work in this environment. Ultimately, in terms of the law, who is going to ultimately bear the burden economically and physically? I think that without lawmakers stepping up, I think a lot of it’s going to be borne by the community and by the workers. I’m really hoping that there is going to be on the back end some changes to make sure that every worker is taken care of especially if they were if they got COVID from their employment.

In terms of the image too, I really, I really do think that you need a different image of meatpacking workers. I’ve seen a lot on Facebook and social media cheering on nurses, medical professionals, and doctors who are risking their life and that is amazing because they are heroes. But at the same time, we need that same image with meatpacking workers and personally, I find it’s very counterproductive that it seems there’s a lot of blame shift and shifting of personal responsibility placed on cultures and different and maybe lifestyles of these immigrant workers and that’s just bad information that’s being put out there by various sources. I think what’s more important is to get out the public health aspect; the people who study this and know who can prevent the spread of these diseases.

Hannah Shultz Thank you both so much for sharing all this information with us.

Thank you for joining us today. Special thanks to our guests and to members of our planning committee Rima Afifi, Anne Crotty, Paul Gilbert, Mike Hoenig, Hannah Shultz, and Laurie Walkner. Funding for this webinar is provided by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Please see the podcast notes for an evaluation and transcript.

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