May 26, 2021

Sinclair Lecturers: Workers Bore the Brunt of the Pandemic in the Meatpacking Industry

By Kay Bechtold

May 26, 2021—Journalists Rachel Axon of USA TODAY and Sky Chadde of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting appeared at Virtual AIHce EXP 2021 on Monday afternoon to share the story of meatpacking workers who bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic as plant executives “sacrificed safety for profits.” Their talk was part of the annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture series, which highlights the importance of media in occupational safety and health.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States in spring 2020, Axon and Chadde were part of a team of journalists who initially sought to report on meat shortages at grocery stores. The meatpacking industry—including large companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS—was warning that supply chain disruptions could mean that there wouldn’t be enough meat for people to put on their tables. Meat shortage fears combined with lobbying from the industry led former President Trump to sign an executive order on April 28 invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure that meat and poultry processing facilities would remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite outbreaks of disease at several plants across the country. But the U.S. was never in danger of a meat shortage, reporters found; the industry exported more meat in 2020 than it did in 2019. That’s when the focus of their story shifted to worker safety.

“A historian of the industry told [our colleague, Kyle Bagenstose, of USA TODAY] that the companies would sacrifice workers in order to keep the plants up and running, and that’s really what ended up happening,” Chadde told attendees of AIHA’s annual conference.

Conditions in meatpacking plants put workers at increased risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Meatpacking employees work side by side, and the culture within the industry is to not report injuries, the journalists noted. Meatpacking plants became coronavirus “hot spots” last spring, with at least 10,000 workers infected at more than 170 facilities in 29 states, according to the journalists’ presentation. The team started filing public records requests targeting health departments in towns and counties with meatpacking plants that were reporting outbreaks with more than 200 cases.

City health department records related to the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, indicated that local officials had discussed closing the plant in the days before Trump’s executive order. The company had also taken the unusual step of testing its entire workforce of about 2,800 workers. Part of the records the journalists received included an unredacted roster with the names of about 700 workers who were tested. The records also included a letter OSHA had sent to the St. Joseph Public Health Department asking for information about an employee named Arturo Chavez Valencia, who was the first worker at the Triumph Foods plant to die of COVID-19. Four workers, including Valencia, would die of coronavirus by the time the investigative team published their report in November 2020.

Axon, Chadde, and their team found that Triumph Foods did not implement effective safeguards early in the pandemic. For example, the plant did not require face coverings for weeks after CDC recommended them and did not initially screen sick employees. The company also implemented a bonus program for workers with perfect attendance, which the journalists said incentivized people to come to work while sick.

The reporting team also found that local health officials received complaints but missed several opportunities to investigate the plant. When the outbreak was first detected, Triumph workers posted comments on the company’s Facebook page expressing concerns about crowding and safety. Some contacted the local public health department to complain that they or their loved ones were being required to come to work while sick. But the local public health department never inspected the plant. Axon explained that the department did not have the authority to close the plant—during a pandemic, that power falls to the state of Missouri. When asked during the course of reporting, state officials said that they did not recommend the plant’s closure. By June, the plant remained open with more than 600 infections identified among workers.

According to Axon, the company was lobbying state and federal officials to keep the Triumph Foods plant open. Reporting showed that Triumph executives were in touch with health officials and other state officials, raising concerns about safety recommendations such as distancing.

“They were at various points pushing to not have to do some of the most effective things we know that stop the spread of virus—spacing being the key one, but certainly others,” Axon told conference attendees.

Another critical decision the company made was to allow workers to return to the plant during mass testing without knowing their test results, potentially putting others at risk of infection, Chadde said. One worker who developed symptoms on June 6 was tested on June 9, but returned to work while awaiting his test results, which came back positive. The worker was hospitalized on June 15 and died on July 2.

Workers’ experiences form the core of the USA TODAY article, which begins and ends with Bernardo Serpa. In a phone interview Serpa gave from his hospital bed in July, he said he felt as though he’d been discarded. “They think workers are like dogs,” Serpa said. “If we don’t work, they get rid of us. And in any case they get new workers.” Serpa was hospitalized for nearly four months and was in a coma for much of that time. When he was discharged, Serpa relied on supplemental oxygen and needed his wife’s support to walk, Axon said. He passed away on Oct. 16.

Public records combined with the stories shared by workers and their families allowed the team to show how Triumph Foods and government entities failed to protect meatpacking workers and what the cost of that failure was. “There were so many times where you could see the difference in power between the companies and who they had access to and the workers and who they didn’t have access to,” Axon said. “Triumph is representative of the rest of the industry in that it has a largely immigrant workforce—more than 50 percent at that plant—and they bore the brunt of what this pandemic meant in that industry.”

A more recent article co-authored by Chadde and published by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting describes the risks that meatpacking workers still face as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture series is named for the political activist Upton Sinclair, who is best known for his 1906 novel The Jungle, which highlighted the horrors of the meatpacking plants in Chicago and led to major health and safety changes in the industry. The lecture is presented annually at AIHce EXP by journalists who have been invited by AIHA's Social Concerns Committee to deliver lectures based on their stories.

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.