One Refugee’s Idea: Use Idle School Buses For Plant Worker Safety

By Pat Rynard

April 16, 2020

At today’s press conference, a reporter asked Gov. Kim Reynolds whether she had spoken with the workers who were worried that they were being forced to show up to unsafe work conditions. Reynolds replied by turning it back on employees.

“That’s a part of educating, you heard me say, not just the employers but the employees as well, getting into these longterm care facilities, talking to the individuals that are working with the residents to make sure the employees that are at these businesses know what they should be doing, and how they can start to isolate themselves if they’re sick,” Reynolds said.

But that’s not at all what the reporter was getting at. The worry here for the workers is not that they’re unsure what to do; they’re worried that their employer isn’t taking steps to keep them safe. And they have no recourse for it, save for quitting their jobs.

Reynolds had said at a previous presser she was in touch with the CEOs of large meat packing plants that were experiencing outbreaks. She was assured that they were giving their employees masks and face shields. Our reporting, where we spoke with the meat packing plant workers, shows that is simply not true.

But the other way Reynolds would benefit from talking with workers is the possible additional challenges she’d learn about — and maybe some solutions.

Here’s one.

When Starting Line’s Claudia Thrane was speaking with meat packing plant workers for our story, one problem kept getting mentioned: transportation.

Many of the immigrants and refugees who keep our packing plants running don’t own their own cars. They carpool to work, sometimes packing ten to a van. That presents an impossible situation when it comes to effective distancing, and many told us they feared they were getting sick together.

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In a press conference yesterday with several immigrant and worker advocate groups, it was reported that groups of carpool travelers all came down with COVID-19 together.

That may not be a problem immediately obvious to people who don’t speak often with many immigrants or low-wage workers. When many of us envision showing up to work in Iowa, we think of driving our own cars, by ourselves, to and from our workplace. For these immigrants and refugees, that’s just not an option, and the only other option to keep safe is to lose your job and your paycheck.

But one Burmese refugee that Claudia spoke with had an idea: use the idle public school buses to transport workers to these critical food supply jobs, allowing them to space out more on their ride.

School buses’ long rows of seats could easily be sectioned off, people sitting every other or every third row, much further apart than when they’re crammed together in a van. The seats in those buses are much easier to wipe off and disinfect after every trip.

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And it’s not like any of those buses are being used right now, with Iowa public schools still out. One extra bonus, since any effort like this would cost money: gas is cheap right now.

It’s not a perfect solution, of course, but every step taken to spread people out and limit contact helps that much more in reducing the likelihood that someone passes on the virus to someone else. But is a solution.

Meat packing plant employees packing into vans to get to work isn’t a problem that will magically solve itself. The Governor can’t just “inform” them that they need to be more careful with transportation and they’ll suddenly all have their own cars. Even if the employers really were doing everything in their power to keep workers safe when they’re on site, these workers would still be getting infected in large numbers as they travel to and from the plant.

So, if these are truly essential workers in an essential industry for Iowa and the nation, why don’t we treat them as such? Call up the bus drivers, organize with workers or their advocates where to pick them up, and keep these people safe in at least one part of their day as they make sure our grocery stores stay stocked with meats.

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That’s a proactive step the government could take. One that would also look like leadership.

Who knows what other ideas we could come up with if we started listening to these essential workers and not just their bosses?

 

by Pat Rynard
Posted 4/16/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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