CDC says 3% of workers in surveyed meat processing plants tested positive for coronavirus

Lucas Gebel makes sausage while processing hogs at Elma Locker & Grocery on July 25, 2018 in Elma, Iowa.

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About 3% of workers in over 100 meat processing plants have tested positive for the coronavirus as conditions allow the virus to spread rapidly and low-wage workers are incentivized to continue going to work, a new study released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

More infected workers were found in plants that tested more broadly for the virus, the CDC researchers said, warning that testing limitations could mean that the count is low. The researchers aggregated data from 115 meat and poultry processing plants across 19 states between April 9 and April 27. 

“As part of the national COVID-19 response, the recognized risk to meat and poultry facility operation requires prompt action to decrease risks to workers, preserve facility function, and maintain the food supply,” the researchers said. 

Covid-19 has spread more rapidly in meat processing plants than in other settings because the nature of the job. On production lines, it is difficult to separate workers by 6 feet or more, the researchers said. 

The physical toll of the work being done inside the plants makes it difficult for workers to wear masks, the researchers said, adding that some of the surveyed plants have struggled to implement heightened disinfecting protocols. 

“Among workers, socioeconomic challenges might contribute to working while feeling ill, particularly if there are management practices such as bonuses that incentivize attendance,” the researchers said. “In addition, some employees were incentivized to work while ill as a result of medical leave and disability policies and attendance bonuses that could encourage working while experiencing symptoms.”

The survey included 130,578 workers in meat processing plants, 4,913 of whom have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the researchers. They added that 20 have died of the disease. 

Of the states surveyed, Iowa reported the highest percent of workers who tested positive, with 18.2% testing positive in two plants. South Dakota reported that 17.3% of its meat processing workforce across two of the state’s plants have tested positive. 

Several major meat processing plants have become hotbeds for coronavirus infections in recent weeks, prompting processors to claim there could be an imminent breakdown in the nation’s food supply chain. In response, President Donald Trump earlier this week invoked the Defense Production Act, a law intended for wartime usage, to designate the meatpacking industry as part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure.”

Unions and workers rights activists have said the move gives plant owners a green light to ignore worker safety if it interferes with a plant’s ability to stay open and avoid liability if workers get sick or die.

Labor unions have called for the government to strengthen safety measures for workers whose health is critical to the supply chain. The United Food and Commercial Workers union represents about 250,000 food processing and meatpacking workers across the U.S. and Canada, including many of Smithfield’s plants. 

In an interview with CNBC, UFCW president Marc Perrone said meatpacking workers need high-quality protective gear, such as N95 respirator masks, and plants must be reconfigured to allow 6 feet of social distance in addition to any plexiglass barriers. He said workers must have expanded access to both diagnostic and antibody testing, too.

The CDC researchers recommended “improving physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and medical leave policies, and providing educational materials in languages spoken by workers” for meat processors to protect workers and remain in operation.

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