As the United States turns its attention to the crisis of injustice and racism, the coronavirus pandemic still rages on, continuing to impact the most vulnerable among us. For many Iowans working in meatpacking plants, the virus not only continues to threaten their lives, but they also are victims of employers’ neglect.
Some employers have mishandled the safety of their workers during the pandemic. Across Iowa and the nation, workers continue to be exposed to the coronavirus. After contracting it, employees say they either are pressured to go back to work, regardless of how they feel, or are not paid for their time off while in quarantine.
I reached out to a couple of workers at the JBS plant in Ottumwa. Both employees I spoke to feel they were unfairly treated before and after they were quarantined.
One employee told me that when news broke earlier this year that the coronavirus was spreading through the United States, workers felt uneasy about their working conditions. They expressed concern, and the pork plant’s production line was stopped three different times to discuss safety concerns with supervisors and managers.
“We asked for face masks, some kind of social distance and, more importantly, we asked to be notified if they had any positive COVID cases,” a worker said.
Managers assured them they would be safe and that the company would keep them informed about any positive cases. According to this individual, the company told them there was a shortage of face masks and they were going to have to wait to receive them. Employees did start having their temperatures taken, however.
When there were rumors of workers getting sick, he asked supervisors why employees were not notified, and he was told it was due to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). They were also told that the employer is not allowed to give any information to protect the privacy of infected workers, a common refrain from companies trying to conceal the scale of their outbreaks.
It became obvious to workers that JBS was intentionally keeping their workers in the dark and more employees were getting sick. Some workers asked to get together with their union leader.
At the meeting with the union, they learned that even when workers were getting sick, the company had to remain open because President Trump signed an executive order requiring meatpacking plants to stay open. They had to sacrifice so they could keep feeding the country. At the same meeting, they were discouraged from bringing up the issue with administrators themselves again.
“I understood the situation,” one of the employees said. “I wanted to keep working and do my part to feed the nation, but if I would get sick, who was going to take care of me and my coworkers? If we are so essential, how come they are not doing more to protect us? I was really worried about this situation.”
In mid-May, he started feeling sick and was tested for COVID-19 May 15. He was sent home while waiting for the results. He was confirmed positive three days later. Although this worker presented many COVID-19 symptoms, he never had a fever.
He told me he never was paid for the days he had to stay home while awaiting a test result, and he only received $400 for the two weeks he was quarantined.
“I informed the company about feeling sick and testing positive because I wanted to be responsible and prevent other workers from contagion, and now the company won’t pay me,” he said. “That’s immoral. They are stealing my time and my work, they are stealing the money I used to feed my family.”
According to this employee, many workers continue to work while sick because they know the company will not pay them and they cannot afford to miss a paycheck.
Another person working at the plant said there are so many people infected, or afraid of getting infected, that the plant looks empty. Although he does not know exactly how many workers have been infected, he believes about 40% of employees are not working right now.
This employee, who believes he was exposed to the virus by his coworkers, told me he asked the company and the state to be tested about two weeks ago and he has yet to receive a call back or any type of response.
Tim Richmond, Wapello County’s emergency management director, has said all JBS employees are guaranteed access to testing through Test Iowa, which has a drive-through testing site in Ottumwa.
As of Wednesday morning, Wapello County has reported 679 positive COVID-19 cases, the eighth-highest case count in Iowa.
There is an unfortunate and, at times, deadly trend in how meatpacking plant workers are treated amid the pandemic.
One is the lack of transparency when it comes to revealing positive cases. Workers do not know if they are being exposed to the virus and are afraid of getting infected.
Last and not least, these meatpacking plant workers take care of the nation, but employers and government do not take care of them.
I keep thinking about the greed of these companies, but what infuriates me is the fact that government officials are allowing these meatpacking plants to take advantage of their workforce and siding with the businesses instead.
Meatpacking workers are too afraid to advocate for themselves, but a good way to help them is to vote in November and make sure we elect individuals who fully understand the commitment to serve all the people in their state.
By Claudia Thrane
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