I work with slaughterhouse workers and whistleblowers in the food industry who are deemed essential. But these industries do not treat workers with dignity and worth.
Workers must be allowed to speak up safely when they see threats to public health – for the safety of workers, animals, and consumers.
Most plant workers feel like they are valued less than the animals. Martina and Luis are plant workers who have expressed to me that unlike plant workers, animals are worth something even when they die.
Trump says they have to work and plants need to stay open. He said he will make sure workers get personal protective equipment (PPE) and practice social distancing. But the USDA has been increasing the line speeds at slaughterhouses so fast that workers can barely keep up.
Meat inspector whistleblowers, like Jill Mauer and Phyllis McKelvey, have publicly expressed concern that no worker or inspector could possibly sort products effectively at the USDA's new high speeds. But now, wearing the PPE, workers get overheated, they are getting fatigued because the masks make it difficult for them to breath.
And Trump does not seem to care about public health. With so many workers sick and speeds even faster, how can people like Martina and Luis keep up and still keep food safe?
The workers I speak with often remain anonymous due to concern for themselves and their families. They are essential workers and deserve clean and safe working conditions. If they are told to go to work, they at least deserve paid sick days off so that they don't spread sickness. Six Tyson workers have died in the outbreak already. To make things worse, if a worker comes into the plant with a fever, not only does that worker have to stay home until they are symptom-free, but so do any of their family members who work at the plant. Whole families are sent home with no pay. Some plants say they offer short-term disability if a worker is out for over two weeks, but none of the workers I have spoken to have ever heard of anyone getting that benefit. Luis said that it's very hard to get short-term disability ever, and that it only reimburses for 20 hours a week – not full-time hours. At Martina's plant, they offered workers a bonus to come to work during COVID-19. But after taxes, it amounts to only about $130/per month.
Animals are being abused, poultry is often unsanitary, and workers are getting injured. I am already hearing that the plastic they are putting in between workers for social distancing is causing chemicals to build up in the plant. Workers have to communicate with masks on, and as it is getting warmer, they are getting overheated by PPE. It is hard for them to even access water with the protective equipment on their faces. It's not enough to just give them PPE and plastic dividers. The workers are told that they can go to human resources and their safety supervisors if they have safety concerns. But Martina and Luis said that they are not told how many people are sick in the plant or in which departments the ill people worked. The plant tells them nothing. Workers are discouraged from raising concerns. They need to be heard if Trump wants to keep these plants running.
Tell Congress that the least it can do is to ensure corporations are not given a free pass to exploit workers in the food industry. Congress must pass a COVID-19 relief bill that guarantees protection for workers.