As meat packing plants across Iowa experience outbreaks of the coroanvirus, local officials have stepped up to demand more while Gov. Kim Reynolds has largely communicated with business leaders.
At a coronavirus briefing in Black Hawk County on Friday, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart emphasized the importance of public safety and the well-being of workers while calling out Reynolds and Tyson Foods for their inaction in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo.
“Some people are very upset with me and there are others that’re happy because they’re able to see that in the midst of the worst pandemic crisis in our lives, that I am using strong measures to protect the public,” he said. “I’m choosing to prefer safety of the people over a few thousand dollars worth of revenue.”
He said having places like dog parks and golf courses in Waterloo closed is even more important now that the city is in a region rated 10 on the state’s metric.
This is despite the newest outbreaks occurring in meatpacking plants across the state.
Reporters at press conferences have pressed the Governor several times over where she’s getting her information on meat packing plant safety.
“I think employers are doing the right thing,” Reynolds said at her Thursday press conference. “They need to continue to do the right thing. We’re going to continue to work with them and be a partner. As I said just a few minutes ago, we are all in this together. And we want to make sure individuals need to take individual responsibility.”
“As I reach out and talk to these businesses, especially at some of our larger companies, you know we ask ‘do you have everything you need, what are you doing to protect the employees?’ And they have a vested interest, also, in taking care of their workforce to make sure they can continue to be up and running,” she continued.
When asked specifically if she’s spoken with workers or groups representing them, Reynolds turns it back to her conversations with management.
“I’ve really focused on, like, the H.R. or … the plant manager so that we can understand what the needs are. So we can, first of all, make sure that the employees are safe and that they’re working in a safe environment,” Reynolds said.
Waterloo Rep. Ras Smith said it’s not enough to take a business’s word when it comes to worker conditions.
“I’ve been a manager at a warehouse before and I know that if leadership really wants to know about employee safety, you speak with the employees. I’ve done this,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, Hart and Rep. Timi Brown-Powers sent an email to Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health asking that Tyson Fresh Meats be closed so the facility could be cleaned and workers tested.
“The email, in its essence, was not about food security. Because right now I don’t have any questions about its safety,” Hart said. “But it had everything to do, in regards to the safety of the men and women working in the plant and those they come in contact with.”
Hart said he appreciated the hard job Reynolds has now, and the increased tests sent to the area, but that it’s important not to forget about the employees who are scared to go to work because their company doesn’t provide enough safety measures.
He wasn’t alone.
Smith especially focused on how COVID-19 has affected people of color and those living in a lower socio-economic status.
“We have to understand the demographics of the individuals that are typically employed in these places,” Smith said. “When you have that coupled with an outbreak and you don’t have resources, we don’t have a primary care physician, that’s when this thing compounds and exponentially impacts our community.”
Sen. Bill Dotzler took the podium at the briefing and read testimony from Tyson Fresh Meats employees about the conditions they had to work in, the lack of safety measures and instances of people working while sick.
Black Hawk County Supervisor, and Chairman of the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors, Chris Schwartz read from a letter calling for Tyson Fresh Meats to close voluntarily or for the governor to issue the order to shut it down. The letter was signed by 19 elected officials in the county.
“And we really just implore Tyson to be a good actor and become a good partner in this because right now it’s not been the case,” Schwartz said. “This is not just to pick on one company in our community, but that’s where the most serious crisis is right now.”
He said Black Hawk County is staying in touch with other large manufacturing operations and pressing them to take up safety precautions to avoid getting to the point Tyson is at.
“This is about the lives of our people and about a virus that doesn’t discriminate about who it impacts,” Hart said. “But we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. This is one time in history where we cannot fight with each other, point fingers or pass the buck. If we engage in this behavior we will all lose, but if we fight together against the true enemy, the virus itself and unsafe business practices, then we have a better chance to come out on top.”
by Nikoel Hytrek
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