My phone rang days after we published an article about the COVID-19 clusters surging in meat packing plants in Iowa. It was a woman, a plant employee, who told me, “We got a text to let us know that we have to show up tomorrow for work, first thing in the morning.”
Although I didn’t recognize her immediately, I was able to hear the fear in her voice. She is not the only one. Many are afraid of returning to the plant, and I don’t blame them. Many of these employees have spent a lifetime working in this industry and they know, now more than ever, they can’t trust the intentions of the plant’s leadership.
On April 6, when Tyson’s Columbus Junction meat packing plant closed its doors after dozens of positive tests that have since risen to 166, plant executives assured Gov. Kim Reynolds that they had been proactive by taking all recommended safety measures to protect their staff.
I reached out to several employees, family members and some advocates as well to learn more about their working conditions. They all contradicted the company’s statements.
Everyone I spoke to was afraid to talk out of fear of losing their job. They described the lack of safety in their working conditions and the lack of communication from their bosses. They were basically kept in the dark and sent back to work in contaminated areas.
Speaking with these workers has affected me deeply. I lost several nights of sleep in a row just thinking and wondering, “What if they were my parents or my own kids working there? What if I was the one working there?”
At the same time, the Governor’s words kept playing in my head: “They (the employers) are being proactive”.
The literal definition of being proactive is “to control a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.”
To be proactive is to take every reasonable precaution to keep your employees safe. This includes taking temperatures as employees arrive at the plant, providing protective gear such as masks, and creating the conditions for social distancing on the plant floor — not just the break room. Developing a plan and communicating with employees on a regular basis are also proactive steps. Sharing information and education about the virus to prevent illness and death would be comprehensive measures.
Responsible communication includes informing employees of internal COVID-19 positive cases versus rumors or learning about them in the media. Leadership should not wait until dozens or hundreds of cases are made public in order to temporarily close the plant!
Another resounding message is that these are “essential workers,” the ones working ten hours a day so we can have food on our tables. Then I ask myself if these essential workers have been treated as disposable parts of the industry. Used until no longer needed and then thrown away.
How “essential” were they before the pandemic? How much did we value them? How safe do we keep those essential workers? Not safe enough.
One employee said something that broke my heart: “They value the pigs more than us.”
I had the chance to chat with a Latino advocate from Eastern Iowa.
“As a member of Latinos for Washington, Inc. and member of the Latino community here in Washington, Iowa, I’ve seen and heard many Tyson employees express their working conditions prior to the outbreak and are now scared to go back to work,” she told me. “They fear their employer won’t keep its promise of having a safe working environment. This is very concerning because it doesn’t only affect an individual, it affects families and the whole community, especially because we are a rural community and many resources out there aren’t close. I don’t think Tyson realizes how much this affected the families. Some are still getting through this; some have even lost a friend, a co-worker. These are all hard-working people who deserve a safe working environment and time to heal.”
“This town is small, if these workers get infected, we are all at risk. Employees at this plant come to work from other towns too,” she added. “This means if a worker is infected, then the virus travels too.”
Gov. Reynolds has done an impeccable job in communicating with meat packing plant executives, the same executives that have deceived their workers. One may even think she acts as their spokesperson.
So, I would like to ask you Gov. Reynolds, who are you truly working for?
Are you working exclusively for the company owners or for the Iowa employees that have been impacted by the virus?
Have you communicated with any of these workers, or is it easier to talk to executives that tell you everything is okay?
Why aren’t you holding these companies accountable for their actions?
I am not sure if I will ever have a response, but one thing is for sure, I have yet to hear heartfelt words of compassion or support for the workers and their families coming from our executive branch.
During last Thursday’s news conference, Gov. Reynolds said, “Employers are doing the right thing; they need to continue to do the right thing.”
If these employers are doing the right thing, would you send your kids to work there today? It’s time to check our moral compass. We are talking about human beings, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. We are not talking about the product at the plant.
I want to ask the Governor to do the right thing. Things keep changing for the worse.
I used to quote the movie Field of Dreams fondly: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” Well, the dreams are now nightmares for our essential workers in the meatpacking plants across Iowa. Keep that in mind every time you go to the grocery store or sit down for an Iowa pork dinner during these “shelter-in-place” days.
No, we are not all on the same boat, as the saying goes. We are all struggling in the same sea, just with different protections.
This pandemic is uncovering the ugly truth about the way agricultural workers are mistreated today and have been mistreated in the past in our state. It has also shed light into the racial disparity we live in and how it impacts each Iowan differently. Most workers in this industry are persons of color.
My heart aches for these people I consider my brothers and sisters.
by Claudia Thrane
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