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Opinion They worked so we could eat: What we learned from the pandemic’s meatpacking calamity

A demonstrator waves a placard during a protest outside the offices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Denver on Sept. 16, 2020. The protest was staged by the union representing employees at a Colorado meatpacking plant where at least six workers died of covid-19. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Meatpacking plants suffered terribly during the early stages of the pandemic. They quickly became epicenters of infection. The workers, largely minorities and immigrants, were deemed essential employees, which kept them on the job when others could work from home. Their plight should compel the industry, workers and government to ensure that mistakes that occurred then are not made again.

The latest evidence of this calamity comes from an Oct. 27 staff report by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, and from a hearing that day chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). The report says that among the five major meatpacking companies operating in the United States, at least 59,000 workers were infected during the first year of the pandemic, nearly three times the 22,700 estimated by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an investigative nonprofit that drew on public data. At least 269 meatpacking workers died of covid in the first year, the committee report said. “More workers have died from covid-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the last 15 years,” Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and a former senior official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2015, testified to the panel.

Why did it happen? The meatpacking workers were uniquely vulnerable. A Post investigation last year found meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers, and some employees were urged to continue working in crowded plants even while sick. The House committee said workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Amarillo, Tex., did not use social distancing. They were separated only by flimsy plastic bags on frames. In this plant, more than 1,900 workers — 49.8 percent of the workforce — got sick, and five employees died in the first year of the pandemic. A working paper from the U.S. Agriculture Department in September concluded the culprit in the industry overall was “the physical proximity of workers.”

The House committee faults the Trump administration’s OSHA for a “political decision” not to issue tougher regulations. Ms. Berkowitz also testified that the industry resisted mitigation measures called for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elsewhere. “When asked by CDC to list the protective measures they were implementing in their plants during the first few months of the pandemic, not one of over 100 meatpacking or poultry plants had implemented social distancing on the lines. Not one,” she said. In response to the committee report, meatpacking companies said they had spent millions of dollars to improve worker safety and conditions during the pandemic.

Much of the sickness and death in meatpacking came in the early chaos that also swept nursing homes and other institutions. Remember when hospital workers were gowned in plastic garbage bags? All of it leads to a valuable lesson: In a pandemic, take all available measures to mitigate as rapidly as possible. Inaction can be fatal.