The coronavirus has ravaged meatpacking plants across Iowa in the past two months, infecting thousands of workers and killing some, all while the companies who run them face scrutiny over their lack of sufficient health protections.
Over 1,500 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus as of May 6, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis. About one in every five positive cases in Iowa is connected to a meat plant outbreak.
In response, activists groups have formed throughout the state demanding justice for workers.
But what would justice look like for meat plant workers amid a worldwide pandemic?
Workers that become infected at work may be able to take legal action.
Nate Willems, a Cedar Rapids workers’ compensation attorney and former state representative says a worker would have to establish that they were more likely than not to have contracted the virus during the course of their employment.
Workers that are able to establish the connection could be eligible to have medical care expenses covered and receive monetary benefits.
Similarly, a wrongful death claim could be filed if a worker dies from COVID-19 and the family is able to establish the connection. Iowa Code says in wrongful death cases employers are to cover burial expenses and monetary benefits to eligible dependents.
Willems points out that the workers’ compensation system is a no-fault system.
At this time, workers may be able to bring cases outside of the workers’ compensation system, but that would depend on individual cases.
However, worker’s legal options could be narrowing soon.
Late last month, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open, labeling them a critical infrastructure. The administration says they will also provide liability protections for plants although those have not been rolled out yet.
Willems said he expects workers’ compensation claims to remain unaffected by the administration’s efforts as it is a state program.
While there are legal options, workers often fear retaliation and legal costs.
Last week, Starting Line interviewed the daughter of a Tyson Foods worker who contracted COVID-19 and has since returned to work. In a follow-up interview, the daughter revealed that her mother is not seeking legal action.
“She’s scared to lose her job and finding a job isn’t easy anymore,” the daughter said.
She attributes the lack of justice for meatpacking workers, like her mother, to the disconnect between workers and policymakers. “People who create legislation are people that have never worked in a factory,” she said, critical of the Trump Administration’s protections for meat processors.
As for workers that do seek to take legal action, Kelsey Marquard, a Davenport employment attorney, says it is critically important for workers to document their complaints.
She says workers should file a written complaint, but if that isn’t an option, then employees can send texts to document conversations, take notes on phone calls and interactions with supervisors, keep call logs and document their experiences at work.
“If [workers] do have to bring some type of litigation, those journals, those notes could be really invaluable,” Marquard said.
While many workers aren’t taking legal action, the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa isn’t waiting for the law to try and help workers.
The Center’s Executive Director Rafael Morataya says the center has donated over $50,000 to nearly 100 families through their initiative to help low income and immigrant families who did not receive an economic stimulus payment.
As the outbreak in Columbus Junction’s Tyson Foods plant grew, the center also helped secure over 1,000 facemasks for members of the community.
“This pandemic has highlighted all of the injustices and inequalities that meat plant workers face,” Morataya said.
After talking to dozens of West Liberty Foods employees, the Center for Worker Justice sent a letter to plant managers outlining workers’ concerns and urged the company to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.
In their response, West Liberty Foods assured Morataya that they were implementing their own comprehensive plan to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. They also confirmed that they had six positive cases at that time.
Only one week later, the turkey plant publicly announced that it had 39 cases.
“Workers had been denouncing working conditions for months and their supervisors ignored them,” Morataya said of Iowa’s meatpacking plant outbreaks.
In the end, justice for meatpacking workers may not take the form of legal justice.
Morataya says that one form of justice would be companies finally listening to their workers.
“The impact has to be that companies allow workers to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation,” Morataya said.
Willems says he hopes to see labor unions bounce back to advance social change as they have in the past.
“Meatpacking plants had very active and strong labor unions that made those middle-class jobs with dignity and good benefits,” Willems said.
Marquard said she wants the country to begin to appreciate how critical low-income, essential workers are to our daily lives.
And as for the daughter of the meat plant worker, she says justice for her mother “looks like getting paid more, treated better, and not getting taken advantage of.”
She also says she wants people to keep in mind the immigrants that keep this country moving forward and that they should be better protected.
by Michael Aragon
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