Nearly 5,000 meat industry workers had contracted COVID-19 and 20 had died on the eve of President Donald Trump’s executive order Tuesday that plants churning out America’s steaks and chicken fingers stay open through the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped a report Friday summarizing data it collected from April 20 to 27 on processing facilities in 19 states. The findings are even more severe than those of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents thousands of meatpackers nationwide.
Besides the 4,913 employees the CDC discovered had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, it noted the industry’s frequent failure to maintain the hygiene standards necessary to prevent transmission.
“Challenges included structural and operational practices that made it difficult to maintain a 6-foot (2-meter) distance while working, especially on production lines, and in nonproduction settings during breaks and while entering and exiting facilities,” the report reads.
“The pace and physical demands of processing work made adherence to face covering recommendations difficult, with some workers observed covering only their mouths and frequently readjusting their face coverings while working. Some sites were also observed to have difficulty adhering to the heightened cleaning and disinfection guidance recommended for all worksites.”
Two processors in South Dakota have the highest rate of infection at 17.3 percent, while the 22 affected locations in Pennsylvania have the highest number of cases overall: 858. Colorado—where a facility belonging to JBS USA had to close due to a severe outbreak—accounted for a full quarter of the deaths in the industry nationwide, more than any other state. The Denver Post reported Thursday that another worker at the plant in Greeley had lost their life to the illness, bringing the death toll to six.
The CDC found the same phenomenon nationally that local authorities noted in Greeley: employees feeling compelled to show up on the job despite showing symptoms.
“Among workers, socioeconomic challenges might contribute to working while feeling ill, particularly if there are management practices such as bonuses that incentivize attendance,” the report continues. (The CDC previously found that a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls offered a bonus of $500 to employees who showed up to work amid a coronavirus outbreak.)
The report offers only recommendations for improvement: taking the temperature of anybody entering a plant, implementing social distancing, providing hand sanitizer and face shields, disinfecting surfaces, better training on best practices, and providing paid sick leave.
Meanwhile, the president’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act appears to disempower local authorities to close down infected facilities, and asserts the superior authority of his Department of Agriculture. He has also said he intends to limit the legal liability of beef and poultry giant Tyson, which this week alone has seen severe outbreaks at its facilities in Maine and Nebraska. The former remains open, while the latter has closed.