Congresswoman Maloney Calls Out Failure of Meatpacking Industry to Adequately Protect Its Workforce During the COVID-19 Pandemic
WASHINGTON, DC — At today’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing titled “How The Meatpacking Industry Failed The Workers Who Feed America,” Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, criticized the meatpacking industry’s failure to adequately protect its workforce throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
During her questioning, Congresswoman Maloney stated: “Meatpacking facilities were the sites of some of the first and largest outbreaks of the coronavirus in the nation. Thousands of essential meatpacking workers were infected, falling ill in disproportionately large numbers compared to workers in other industries. Many of these workers were compelled by their employers to be at work, even when they were feeling sick, as we heard in this testimony.”
Chairwoman Maloney then asked Ms. Rose Godinez, Interim Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska: “I understand you represented workers in a lawsuit to address the safety conditions in meatpacking plants. Why did the workers you represented feel so unsafe going to work?”
Ms. Godinez answered: “There are a number of reasons why the workers didn’t feel safe, but first of all they understood that this was an airborne virus, that by standing shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, they were going to contract the virus and distancing was not only not available on the line, but it was also not available in the break rooms and the cafeteria rooms. They have a very limited amount of time to go get in the break room, take of their protective gear, and I’m not talking about COVID-19 protective gear, in locker rooms where the lockers are stacked on top of each other. You’re changing clothes right on top of another worker. And then you go into the cafeteria and you’re only separated by a very thin, flimsy barrier and you’re taking off your mask, you’re eating right in front of others. And then the other reason why workers felt unsafe is simply because they kept seeing their coworkers not coming back the next day. And sometimes they didn’t come back at all. And only discovered someone had passed away because of a Facebook GoFundMe page. And overall there was a lack of transparency. There was no contact tracing. They didn’t know if they had been exposed. They didn’t know if they were exposing their children or family members. So they knew they were risking their lives by going into the meatpacking plants and that was an unnecessary risk.”
Chairwoman Maloney then turned to Ms. Debbie Berkowitz, Practitioner Fellow, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, to explain how the meatpacking industry contributed to community spread of the coronavirus, especially early in the pandemic, asking: “How did meatpacking plants drive coronavirus infection rates into surrounding communities—particularly rural communities?”
Ms. Berkowitz responded: “We know from the beginning of this pandemic that workplace exposures were significant drivers of spreading the coronavirus out into the communities. In meatpacking plants, especially in that plant in Smithfield, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it whipped like wildflower among the workers and then they brought it back home to their family members who got sick, who infected other people in the community. That’s sort of how it happened. And I want to make it clear that the only reason we even know that this virus was spreading the way it did is that the children of the Smithfield workers and the local union actually sort of started talking about it to the newspaper. The children of the Smithfield workers actually formed a Facebook group because their parents were too scared to speak out. And so there have been study after study showing that you know, the numbers now which are so staggering are just the meatpacking workers themselves. But there’s an exponential component to what the real effect of the industry’s failure to mitigate the spread of COVID in their plants is with the spread in the community. I mean, rural communities were hit incredibly hard because the meatpacking industries and their hospitals were overwhelmed.”
Finally, Chairwoman Maloney asked Mr. Martin Rosas, President, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2, to explain the actions his union took to demand increased worker protections, stating: “Mr. Rosas, in April of 2020, you called on meatpacking companies to slow their line speeds to guarantee safe, social distancing between workers. Why did you make this demand, and did the meatpacking companies comply? Did they respond appropriately to your demand?”
Mr. Rosas replied: “They were open to have a discussion on slowing the line speed. However, as soon as President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on distancing, some of the employers such as Seaboard Foods in Oklahoma, which is not mentioned quite often in this whole investigation, they ramped up the line speed. They increased the line speed. So we didn’t get a very positive response based on the fact that I feel protected by the administration, and the OSHA negligence to protecting these workers.”
You can watch the full exchange here.