The meatpacking industry was one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, with workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along production lines. The U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said companies could have done more to protect their workers.
At least 59,000 meatpacking workers caught COVID-19 and 269 workers died when the virus tore through the industry last year, which is significantly more than previously thought, according to a new U.S. House report released Wednesday.
The new estimate of infections in the industry is nearly three times higher than the 22,400 that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has said were infected or exposed. And the true number could be even higher because the companies’ data didn’t generally include coronavirus cases confirmed by outside testing or self reported by employees.
“Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily,” the report said.
“When the pandemic hit, of course it was going to hit meatpacking plants really hard and really fast,” said Berkowitz, a former OSHA official who testified Wednesday. “What was the industry’s response — not to protect workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, not to separate workers 6 feet apart, which was the earlier guidance that came out in late February — but to just keep on going.”
– Ella Breedlove