It’s been a year since COVID-19 descended on U.S. meatpacking plants. In that time, nearly 60,000 workers have gotten sick, and more than 300 have died. That’s led to pushes at the state and federal levels to institute stronger protections for workers in U.S. facilities. While advocates are still navigating efforts to protect workers now, some are already thinking about preventing future outbreaks.
In Nebraska, labor advocates are balancing present concerns about worker safety with questions about the future. With more than 7,000 positive tests within Nebraska plants and 28 deaths, many say employees still need safeguards.
That’s what brought Romulo Vega to the state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, on a chilly spring morning. Vega and other members of Solidarity With Packing Plant Workers and several other nonprofits greeted senators headed inside to vote on LB241, a bill mandating several policies including free masks, sick leave, and a requirement that companies track their cases.
The bill reminds Vega of his father, who worked in a southeastern Nebraska packing plant for 40 years and retired before the pandemic.
“These are parents. These are family members. These are community members. So to just leave them out — they're so vulnerable without any sort of concrete, tangible protections — is what hurts the most,” he said. “Yes, there were guidelines given, but there was no enforcement mechanism behind those guidelines … it could have been my dad.”
Gabriela Pedroza remembers her time in meatpacking well. She worked at a plant for ten years before transitioning to a community organizing role at the Heartland Workers Center, a nonprofit promoting workers’ rights.
“We're very grateful for the opportunity that we had working at the meatpacking plant industry, but we're human beings, simple as that,” she said. “We're human beings asking for safety.”
A few minutes later, Senator Tony Vargas, who wrote the bill, arrived to cheers from the group. He first tried getting protections for workers in Nebraska passed last summer. At the time, several major companies opposed it, saying they’d already adopted CDC-backed policies, like masks, symptom screening, and some sick leave. That led some senators to argue the regulations weren’t necessary, but Vargas and workers’ advocates maintained those policies varied between facilities.
“It's disheartening that we couldn't act immediately, and many people wanted to do a wait-and-see approach and let the plants do what they need to do,” he recalled. “And during that time, we continued to lose more people, and more families were hurt by this pandemic.”
This time, Vargas says he is proposing protections based on what has been working.
“There are plants that are doing good things, and there are some plants that are not. Some that are consistent, and some that are inconsistent,” he told colleagues during debate on the bill.”
This time, the bill passed its first of three approvals needed to arrive at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ desk. Yet even if Ricketts signs the policy into law, those protections would only last a year.
State and union efforts
Some are already wondering how to protect workers from the next pandemic. Vargas has another bill in the works that would create a statewide system for Nebraskans to earn up to five sick days per year and bar companies from retaliating against workers for using paid leave.
The policy isn’t aimed at the meatpacking industry, but if it were to pass, he hopes that would prevent a major complaint from workers from surfacing again: that workers couldn’t afford to stay home sick or felt pressured to show up no matter what.
“They're making trade offs that they can never get back,” he said. “But if they were able to earn some amount of sick and safe days so that they can take a day, I think that is necessary for the well being of a person and a family.”
Others want plants to put the lessons they’ve learned from COVID-19 into labor contracts. Eric Reeder is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents about half of Nebraska’s food processing plants. He thinks having a blueprint could save lives in the future.
“I think the problem that people forget is that unlike most workplaces — when you look at an office or places where you can work remotely, or you can limit the number of people coming in and out — there's not a lot you can do in a meatpacking facility,” he said. “When this started, we had to kind of scramble around to work out what each company was going to do, and all of them were all over the place with what they wanted to do.”
In a future pandemic, he says having a plan would save time and resources by cutting out the back-and-forth between employers and the union. He pitched the idea as well as renovations to the ventilation system to one eastern Nebraska plant, but he says management wasn’t interested.
“You have to have some kind of idea of what you'll do — rather than wait until things are here and try to negotiate … We know what the best practice is now.”
Warnings and lessons
It’s not the first time meat processors have resisted emergency pandemic planning. The White House first tasked the Department of Homeland Security with creating a pandemic plan during the George W. Bush administration.
Past reporting suggests John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza,” a nonfiction detailing the 1918 flu pandemic, convinced President Bush to request $7 billion from Congress for the endeavor. John Hoffman, a retired Army colonel and senior researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute, remembers a string of avian and swine flu outbreaks overseas.
“Given the nature of our extensive swine operations in the US, the concern was that could come here, and it could affect people,” he remembered.
Hoffman was working as an emergency planner with DHS and focused on protecting the U.S. food system. He says the entire food supply chain from farm to grocery store carried risk, particularly for those working in food processing plants. Agencies decided to hold sessions with companies to encourage planning ahead with public health departments.
For the most part, companies from several critical industries didn’t bite.
“When the training for something like this came up, [companies sent] the people who deal with government,” he said. “That was unfortunate because they aren't the people who we needed to train.”
Key federal agencies also doubted the point of planning. He thinks companies picked up on their lack of urgency and question the usefulness of expending the resources.
“The USDA and FDA did not take this planning seriously,” he deadpanned. “Their view was our agriculture systems and our food processing is so ubiquitous, so redundant … well, there were a number of us in the infrastructure side from DHS looking saying, ‘Wait a minute, what happens when you start shutting things down? What happens when you start having the disease move through nearly every community in the country, and now every one of those employee groups is at risk to getting sick?’”
Nearly 20 years later, Hoffman says companies were forced to improvise. That lack of planning at the company, state, and federal level put workers in danger.
“They couldn't get [help] because public health was occupied elsewhere, and there wasn't already a coordinated agreement in place about how to do that,” he said.
Hoffman emphasized that situation doesn’t have to happen again. Policy work like Vargas and Reeders’ is part of the solution, he says, but it can’t stand alone. It will take years of investment from companies, the government, and public health departments to protect workers from future outbreaks.
“I think it's bigger than just the companies. I think public health is going to be asked to stand up capabilities that they didn't have before because we've learned a lesson,” he said. “I think you're gonna see a requirement coming out of this, particularly out of this effort on supply chains to start requiring companies to be prepared for this kind of event.”