Advocacy groups call for more protections for meatpacking, food processing plant workers

Entrance to the Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction (KWQC)
Entrance to the Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction (KWQC)(KCRG)
Published: Apr. 15, 2020 at 9:37 PM CDT
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Working too closely together to follow social distancing requirements, carpooling to work with people who are infected with the coronavirus, and reporting safety concerns to managers, only to have those concerns blown off — all complaints that immigrants', refugees' and workers’ advocacy groups say they’ve recently received from people working in Iowa’s food processing plants.

“A lot of the workers, they’re already working elbow-to-elbow on the meat lines, and they’re not getting the protection — we’re talking about PPEs, glasses, safeguards between each worker,” Nick Salazar, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa, said.

Salazar and LULAC of Iowa have been in contact with workers at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Louisa County, which will be closed until at least the end of this week because of a coronavirus outbreak among workers. As of Wednesday,

, and more than 140 had contracted the virus.

In Tama County, the Iowa Premium beef processing plant

until at least Monday because of infected workers.

At both those plants and at many of the more than a dozen meatpacking and food processing facilities in Iowa, immigrants, refugees and non-English speakers make up much of the workforce. Immigration and workers’ advocates said not enough is getting done to keep workers safe.

They also said these outbreaks are disproportionately affecting black and brown Iowans, an assertion data backs up. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Black- and African-Americans make up 4% of the state’s population, but the Iowa Department of Public Health reports they total 9.2% of Iowa’s coronavirus cases, as of Wednesday. Meanwhile, Hispanic and Latino Iowans make up 6.2% of the state’s population and 17.3% of its coronavirus cases.

"These workers that are considered essential are not being protected,” Maria Gonzalez, a co-organizer of Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown, said.

Gonzalez joined several other advocacy group representatives for a teleconference Wednesday organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Iowa and including the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa (RACI), Center for Worker Justice, Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and other community advocates.

The speakers described ways in which they argued workers are getting let down and left behind. They said some workers aren’t able to be tested for the virus, and especially with undocumented workers, unable to access healthcare to treat illness. The need for language interpretation in some cases complicates the situation even more.

“When they’ve asked for help to make them safer, aren’t given access to the things that they need,” Stephanie Moris, of RACI, said.

Rafael Mortoya, of the Center for Worker Justice, said that while many of these workers are proud of their work, “they’re not willing to risk their lives” for it.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, does offer a

to report workplace violations, Charlie Wishman, secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, noted Iowa OSHA was already short-staffed on inspectors before the outbreaks started.

During the teleconference, the group also announced a statement, titled, “Protect the Lives and Safety of All Iowa Workers,” signed by more than 60 groups around Iowa and directed to Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Department of Public Health, and Iowa OSHA.

In it, they make four requests to protect the state’s workforce from the coronavirus: to require all employers follow federal guidance on preventing workplace exposure; to ensure all exposed workers can access medical care and emergency services; to provide workers' compensation to those who contract the virus while on the job; and to meet with essential workers to hear about their workplace conditions and develop industry-specific response plans, communicated in multiple languages.

Reynolds said Wednesday that the state had made contact with all of Iowa’s packing and processing plants, but she didn’t say if inspectors would be increasing their visits to these facilities to ensure they're following through on state and federal guidelines.

“We’re going to continue to reach out and provide the testing that they need to make sure that they can protect their employees, first and foremost, but so that we can have healthy employees that can keep the plant up and running and can continue to make sure that that food supply is working its way to our grocery stores and to Americans and people all around the world,” Reynolds said.

Advocates said workers are putting themselves and their families at risk if conditions don’t change, and they also warned these outbreaks could eventually affect every Iowan and even more Americans.

“You’re still receiving these goods,” Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, an advocate from Des Moines, said. “You’re still going to bear the brunt of what happens if a huge percentage of workers get sick, and then the supply chain breaks down, and then you’re not able to get these basic necessities.”