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14 Apr 2020

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones

Workers churning out America’s favorite meat fear for their safety

[I]t [is] clear that the virus is descending on the meatpacking industry. Three workers at a Georgia poultry plant run by Tyson have died from the infection... Smithfield... announced it was shutting down a... hog-processing facility... “indefinitely,” after 238 of the plant’s 3,700 workers tested positive for COVID-19... A worker... at an Arkansas chicken-processing plant run by... Tyson [shared]... [that] as coronavirus infections rise in Arkansas [she] would prefer to quarantine at home, but she has to continue working to pay rent and bills.

... Tyson has taken steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus within its facilities... [and] is working to improve conditions... Tyson announced on March 31 it would deliver “‘thank you bonuses” of $500 to front-line meatpacking workers... [but] [t]he payments won’t be delivered until the first week of July, meaning that workers will have to maintain their jobs until then to benefit, though “excused absences—such as those involving illness or childcare issues—won’t affect a worker’s ability to qualify for a bonus,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson wrote in an email... As for employees who get sick and have to miss work during the crisis, Tyson will pay them for missed work—but at just “approximately 60 percent” of their normal earnings.

... [A]s COVID-19 rips through the meatpacking industry, leading to temporary closures and fear of more deaths, the poultry workers I talked to said they don’t feel sufficiently protected from the virus. Because of their low wages—they earn a median hourly wage of $13.23... —they live on the economic margins, relying on their most recent paycheck to pay bills. Many of them are undocumented immigrants and don’t have access to unemployment benefits or the $1,200 per worker emergency benefit... in the recent stimulus bill.