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Wisconsin: COVID – 19 outbreaks at Brown County meat packing plants show hypocrisy of “essential worker” designation

Commentary by staff |
May 11, 2020
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COVID – 19 outbreaks at Brown County meat packing plants show hypocrisy

Green Bay, WI - While Wisconsin business owners and their political allies claimed local COVID-19 cases were on the decline and pressed to repeal Governor Ever’s Safer at Home order, manufacturing plants in Brown County were experiencing a huge outbreak of the deadly viral disease amongst the workers. Cases at three meatpacking plants - JBS Packerland, American Foods Group, and Salm Partners - have accounted for over half of the county’s cases, even as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union fought for and won vital hazard pay, safer working conditions, and personal protection equipment (PPE) for its members, following concerns raised by the immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera.

However, these measures came too late. Brown County now has the highest infection rate per capita in Wisconsin, and fourth highest among counties nationwide. This disaster is not limited to only the workers of the meat packing plants: the workers at the plants unfortunately spread the virus to their families and other close acquaintances.

Meat processing plants are known for their demanding and dangerous working conditions, and have long relied upon immigrants, and other oppressed peoples to perform the difficult work required to provide meat to people across the country. Workers operate “elbow-to-elbow” in temperatures near freezing in order to prepare meat products for sale. These conditions have spread the viral infection COVID-19 at an alarming rate among workers in the plants.

These working conditions alone did not cause the drastic infection rate among employees. Reports from inside the plants in early April describe a failure to provide PPE to employees, as well as a lack of hygiene supplies such as soap and hot water. Workers were pushed to arrive for their shifts even if they were exposed to a case of COVID-19, and even told to hide their symptoms and keep working or they would be fired.

Meanwhile, rich Wisconsin business owners, their politicians, and their allies have constantly called for a “return to normal”. Their profits have been disrupted by attempts to contain the pandemic, and despite the toll it has taken on those called “essential workers”, they want their comfortable lives to return. A rally in Madison, WI drew thousands of people, calling for the end to the Safer at Home order, and the State Supreme Court is currently debating whether the order is “unconstitutional”.

During the recent State Supreme Court discussion on the order, a justice remarked that the virus is mostly present in meat packaging plants and isn’t affecting “regular folks” - a racist callout to the separation between the Black, brown, and immigrant workers who are deemed “essential” and forced to work in dangerous and life threatening conditions, versus the rich that profit off their labor, allowing them to live safely and more comfortably.

The JBS Packerland plant, after reporting a massive amount of infections among the workforce, announced an indefinite closure of the facility in order to test for the virus. The results were shocking: almost 300 workers, or 25% of the workforce, tested positive. But we will have to wait to discover whether that number will improve or get worse: in late April, the health department announced they would comply with requests from the three meat packing facilities and stop reporting cases of COVID-19 at the plants in the county and state totals.

Adding to this disaster is President Trump’s executive order for meat processing plants to reopen, so that the meat supply chains will not be disrupted. On Tuesday, May 5, JBS Packerland resumed operations despite the number of infected in the workforce. This only serves to benefit the company. The UFCW International Union had negotiated 32 hours of pay per week for their members during the plant closure in order to protect their livelihoods while essential testing was being performed. This was a short-lived protection and workers are now again being exposed to potential infection.

Asked for comment, Northeast Wisconsin-based refugee advocate Wess Roberts responded, “These events prove two things. First, the initial suppression of information and protective measures by private actors illustrates just how essential unions remain in protecting modern workers, and by extension, the greater well-being of the public.”

Roberts continued, “Second is that, even with union protections, the vast, intersecting federation of vulnerable minority groups employed by the food production industry - racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, refugees, asylees, migrant workers, etc. - continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of the risks and consequences of an inaccessible, profit-driven decision making apparatus. The case for the existence and reinforcement of our unions practically makes itself.”

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