The Pandemic’s Toll on Meatpacking Workers

How fear and infection spread across the factory floor

woman and child in the middle of red drawing
Anson Chan

When Donald Trump took the oath of office on a gray January morning in 2017, he laid out his vision for the United States under his leadership. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease,” he said. “A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.” Nearly four years later, the divide in how we view the consequences of his first term remains large. But the nation is undeniably changed. From family separation, to nation-wide protests and economic volatility, to a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, Trump will leave behind a legacy—whether he’s reelected or not. We are telling the stories of seven individuals living with the consequences of Trump’s first term. You can read the rest of the stories here.

When coronavirus cases started appearing at the JBS beef-processing facility in Greeley, Colorado, this past March, Stacey was terrified. She works on the plant’s kill floor, removing intestines that weigh between 30 and 50 pounds from hundreds of cattle each hour.

In normal times, the plant’s 6,000 workers stand shoulder to shoulder and carpool to work. Stacey, whom I am calling by a pseudonym because she fears retribution at work, was afraid she would get her family sick. “I had trouble sleeping. I was very nervous. And sometimes I was just irritable,” she said. “Everyone was feeling very nervous.”

Colorado reported its first confirmed case of the virus on March 5. The company decided to require masks on March 19. By March 24, at least one worker was in the hospital.

Stacey’s daughter started asking her questions about what would happen if she got sick. She told her they would have to isolate from each other. Meanwhile, at the plant, workers were left in the dark. When management posted notices, some would be only in English, even though many of the plant workers speak other languages.

As the cases at the plant grew into the dozens, workers stopped showing up because they were afraid of getting sick or spreading the virus. Management at the Brazilian-owned company told them that a statewide stay-at-home order did not apply to them.

“People from the plant were not helping us,” Stacey said. “They were saying the plant wasn’t going to close. We asked for face masks, and they said we didn’t have to worry because the people that got sick were not in our shift.”

Stacey said the company didn’t provide her with protective equipment until just before the county health department came for a visit, in April. The health department warned JBS that it wasn’t confident the company was taking enough measures to protect its workers and that a work-while-sick culture was contributing to the spread of the disease.

After the local health department ordered the plant to close, JBS completely shut down on April 15. Across the country, other plants were shutting down, too: By the end of April, 12 of Nebraska’s meat-processing plants had 588 confirmed cases, two Iowa facilities had 377 cases, and five Wisconsin plants had 389 cases.

Soon, at least 20 meatpacking plants were shuttered across the country.

JBS promised that it would test all of its employees before the plant reopened. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged the JBS outbreak in their daily coronavirus briefing on April 10, saying that they were working to send tests to Colorado.

But the tests never materialized. On April 23, JBS announced it was reopening with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Four days after Stacey went back to work, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law that allows the president to require industry to act in the service of national interest. The factories were declared critical infrastructure and were compelled to remain open. The move denied local health authorities, like the ones in Greeley, of one of their best means of preventing outbreaks in their communities—closing the plants. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a government agency tasked with regulating American workplaces, issued guidelines about protecting workers during the pandemic, the recommendations weren’t mandatory in practice, and the Department of Labor said it would consider siding with meat processors if they were sued by workers who got sick. On September 11, OSHA fined JBS $15,615 for failing to protect workers.

In spite of the pandemic’s impact on JBS operations, the company’s profits during the quarter its Greeley plant was shuttered exceeded industry analyst expectations. The company earned $629 million between April and July.

When Stacey and her co-workers went back to the kill floor, there were fewer people there to do the same job.

The company offered a bonus for perfect attendance after reopening. Stacey got the bonus. She’s proud of the job she does—she’s been able to buy a house with her earnings and help feed thousands of people, who probably never think about what it takes to put food on their table. But it comes with serious risk. JBS hasn’t instituted paid sick leave, instead providing surgical masks and face shields that employees aren’t allowed to keep. (JBS did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

That hasn’t kept workers from getting sick. By early fall, the plant had 305 confirmed cases and seven deaths, one of the state’s largest outbreaks to date. The union representing workers at the plant estimates that likely far more people have caught the disease. The Food and Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking outbreaks in the food system, tallied 42,730 meatpackers who’ve been infected and 204 who have died. Unless Trump rescinds his executive order, plants will be required to remain open, no matter how many more fall ill.

At Stacey’s plant, workers are organizing for safer conditions. Stacey has kept working. She’s coping with the new reality, but her worries aren’t gone—she knows how easily and quickly the disease can spread.

Plus, she has other worries to keep her up at night. “Now, my daughter went back to school,” she said.