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Wisconsin chief justice sparks backlash by saying covid-19 outbreak is among meatpacking workers, not ‘the regular folks’

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience D. Roggensack speaks at a court hearing in September 2015 at the Grant County Courthouse in Lancaster, Wis. (Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP)
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The offhand comment by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack was about to take on a life of its own.

In the middle of oral arguments Tuesday about the legality of the state’s stay-at-home order, an attorney for Gov. Tony Evers (D) had just pointed to Brown County, Wis., as an example of how fast the novel coronavirus can spread. The county, home to the JBS Packerland meatpacking plant, had its coronavirus cases surge more than tenfold, from about 60 cases to almost 800, in just two weeks, the lawyer said.

That’s when Roggensack interjected.

“These were due to the meatpacking, though,” she said. “That’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”

As one Wisconsin native questioned on Twitter: “What kind of folks are they then?”

Roggensack’s statement, appearing to draw a line between meatpacking workers and “regular folks,” caused an uproar among local workers’ advocates as well as some lawmakers. Some described the statement as “elitist,” appearing to exclude the meatpacking workers from the “regular” community. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was “shocked” by her comments, while state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D) said it was “embarrassing” for the state that a high court justice would make such a “classist” remark.

Others defended the judge, pointing out that she was probably observing that the meatpacking plant is responsible for a spike, as Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, told WISN.

But either way, the Brown County Health and Human Services Department urged people on Wednesday not to blame the meatpacking industry, or any facility or industry, for the outbreak.

“It’s extremely important to note that covid-19 is not an industry-specific issue, nor is one facility in Brown County to blame for the outbreak,” health department spokeswoman Claire Paprocki said during the county’s daily briefing. “The continued focus on one industry does not provide the public with an accurate representation of what is occurring in our community. Community spread is the issue.”

Workers at a Tyson Foods meat-processing plant in Lexington, Nebraska are getting sick with covd-19 and say the company hasn’t done enough to protect them. (Video: Robert Ray/The Washington Post)

Supreme Court justices are elected in Wisconsin. The justices choose from among them a chief justice. Roggensack, considered a conservative, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment late Wednesday night.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473, the local union that represents 5,000 meatpacking workers across the state, came out against Roggensack with particularly strong words Wednesday, calling her statement “deeply offensive and deeply out of touch with regular folks.”

Voces de la Frontera Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz, another workers’ advocate, told WISN that because many of the meatpacking workers are black and brown, she considered Roggensack’s statement racist, suggesting that those workers’ lives were “less worthy” than the lives of others.

Meatpacking workers have emerged as some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic, hit especially hard at plants ranging from Tyson Foods facilities in Iowa to another JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. In Brown County, Paprocki said Wednesday that meatpacking plant workers make up 39 percent of the county’s 1,635 confirmed cases. Some plants temporarily closed to focus on strengthening health precautions, including JBS Packerland, which reopened Tuesday.

But while the workers in these plants may face different risks compared to others, painting them as different from other people in the community doesn’t help keep them safe, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473 stressed in a video statement Wednesday night.

Melanie Bartholf, the union’s political director, said in the video that she wanted to start by pointing out the obvious: “Regular folks work in meatpacking plants." They’re in fact so regular, she said, that the state’s NFL football team, the Green Bay Packers, is named for them. By distinguishing the workers from the rest of Brown County, she said, Roggensack’s comments are “representative of a troubling elitist mentality that likes to pit workers against the community as a whole, when in fact, workers are the community.”

“Our members who work at these packing plants, who work at JBS and other plants across the state, are literally putting their lives one the line every single day so you and I can have food on our tables,” she said. “And they deserve every possible protection.”

The justice made the remark toward the end of Tuesday’s hearing in the politically divisive case, Wisconsin Legislature vs. Andrea Palm, in which GOP legislators are challenging the executive powers of Evers and the state health chief. Conservative justices, who are in the majority, were highly skeptical of Palm’s authority to issue emergency public health orders. Justice Rebecca Bradley questioned whether her actions didn’t amount to “tyranny” and even compared the restrictions to Japanese internment campus during World War II.

Wisconsin state Supreme Court hears GOP lawmakers' challenge to stay-at-home order

Brown County entered the picture when Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth used its situation to show why it’s important that the executive branch be able to use emergency powers to address a health crisis quickly, rather than through a drawn-out rulemaking process that the Wisconsin Legislature would prefer. Roth said an outbreak in the meatpacking industry exploded across the community in just two weeks, but in response to Roggensack, he suggested that the source of the outbreak was beside the point.

“The point I’m trying to make that these flare-ups, when safer at home is steadily lifted in stages, are going to happen all across the state, and they’re going to happen very quickly,” he said. “It’s like a wildfire.”

In a deep dive into how Brown County’s coronavirus cases grew 1,000 percent in about one week in mid-April, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that public health officials initially linked more than half of the 500-plus cases to three meatpacking plants in the county, including JBS. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now investigating the extent to which a lack of health and safety precautions despite obvious risks could have contributed to the outbreak.

On Tuesday, Paprocki said now many sources are contributing to the local outbreak, not just the plant.

“The greater focus is on the community spread,” she said. “We can’t point fingers or point to one source that caused the type of numbers that we’re seeing in Brown County.”

She said it’s “just as likely” that a person could get the virus if “you go over to your neighbor’s house and have an adult beverage in their driveway as if you were working at a meat plant.”