After more than two months of mostly staying at home and practicing social distancing, I had to take my grandson to the doctor this past week. I made sure he wore a face mask and gloves.
We waited in the car until we were called. Once inside the clinic, I was constantly checking that he would not touch anything or try to get close to anyone. I was very intentional and protective about his safety. Why? Because I love him and the last thing I want is to expose him to a virus that has caused so much harm. I cannot even think about it without it causing me anxiety.
With that said, I ask myself why meatpacking companies fell short in protecting their workers. What were their intentions?
How is it that we have state officials telling the media that companies are proactive in implementing measures to protect employees? We read and watch how the positive COVID-19 cases increase daily in the meatpacking hot spots.
One can only conclude that the daily statement about companies being proactive are nothing but empty words. This obvious disdain from our authorities, that should be trusted sources, is causing death and serious financial consequences to thousands of families in Iowa.
Regardless of the company or town where they work in Iowa, the meatpacking plant workers I’ve talked with are mad. The government that labeled them essential workers is talking from both sides of their mouth and has turned their backs on them, while at the same time applauds the companies they work for.
He said the company gave them face masks and started taking temperatures in the middle of April, but he was never told by his supervisors that there were positive COVID-19 cases among the employees. He hears news about the company, but via conversation among all the workers.
He continued to tell me that even up until two weeks ago, the company had not installed any plastic shields in the line between workers and they had not changed anything in the lockers. This employee said, “We all get together in the locker rooms, there’s no way of avoiding getting close to other employees.”
Another employee said the company provided them with an application to update workers on the positive cases in the plant, but not everyone has access to it because it is difficult to log in.
“I haven’t been able to log in to the company’s application, and I speak English, I can’t imagine how the rest of the workers who don’t speak the language can get in it,” he added.
He usually finds out this information through other employees or he finds out on Facebook, but he says it is never accurate. He added that he did not find out about the death of an employee due to the virus until two weeks after it happened.
On May 1, an employee by the name Husen Jagir age 56, died one week after he first felt sick at the end of his shift at the Seaboard Triumph Foods plant.
It was reported that Mr. Husen warned the company twice about his concerns that the coronavirus was spreading through the plant because of its crowded spaces and lack of personal protective equipment. The company did not listen, and now Mr. Husen is gone.
When describing working conditions, one employee also told me of a common area with televisions where the company repeatedly plays videos of the Governor’s daily press conferences on the status of the pandemic in Iowa. They also play video messages from the company’s CEO. This employee said, “They have the access, they have the platform, but they don’t use it to keep us updated at all,” referring to updates on positive cases inside the plant.
In his opinion, the plant’s handling of the COVID-19 situation has been extremely poor, especially in how late it took to implement face masks. This individual understands that there is a shortage of protective equipment, but what is incomprehensible to him is why was the PPE not provided earlier given that they were labeled and considered such a critical part of our state’s infrastructure. Another detail he shared is that they can get new face masks, but only if the one they are using is extremely dirty.
This employee also told me that workers get two weeks paid leave if someone in their household tests positive for COVID-19, but if later the same worker tests positive, that person will not receive paid leave.
And when he went to a Test Iowa site recently, medical staff there told him that because plant workers are considered part of the critical infrastructure, if someone in the same household tests positive, he can still work.
“No wonder these meat packing plants are major hot beds,” he commented.
All these careless handling of the pandemic by the companies make the person I spoke to feel that his employer has done the bare minimum to protect workers because they do not care about them.
In talking to many of these workers, I have learned so much more about the meat packing industry and the way these corporations conduct business.
It all begs the question, how can we be intentional about their safety? Let us all think about this as we are made to live a “new normal.” and let us not forget the brave man and woman who literally put meat on our tables.
by Claudia Thrane
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