A high concentration of coronavirus cases has been found in meat plants. According to data from the CDC, over 5,000 workers at 115 meat processing plants have now been diagnosed with COVID-19, raising concerns about how the industry can continue its activity over the course of the pandemic.
Americans love their meat. Per capita, the USA is the highest consumer of meat in the world, with the average American consuming 97 kg (or 214 pounds) per year. Nationwide, the meat and poultry processing industry employs approximately 500,000 persons, many of whom work in close proximity to other workers, many without protective equipment. Needless to say, this is bad news for the coronavirus pandemic.
The federal government has essentially ordered meatpacking plants to stay open, much to the chagrin of worker organizations and unions, who have complained that worker safety will be seriously jeopardized if plants don’t change their work culture and environment, and provide sufficient protective equipment. So far, there is little indication that this is happening, and the consequences are visible.
Over 5,000 employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, as meat plants seem to be a hotspot of infection. The facilities with the largest outbreaks have one thing in common: they don’t provide adequate spacing for workers and have workers who can’t work properly with face coverings.
The CDC has recently issued guidance advising facilities to alter the production line to enable workers to stay distanced and provide routine disinfection for “high-touch” areas such as doorknobs and some equipment.
In addition, the CDC wants companies to ax wage incentives based on attendance — which companies are extremely unlikely to do.
Many key workers in meat processing plants are low-income employees who are not offered any paid sick leave or health benefits — which encourages employees to come to work even when they’re sick, helping to spread the disease.
Meanwhile, meat companies are asking for compensation for euthanized livestock, which they have done as meat processing plants shut down due to rising infections.
Companies also believe that the presidential order to stay open won’t change that much as employees will be hesitant to come to work, either because they’re sick, or because they’re afraid of getting sick.
“I don’t see it having much effect,” said Stephen Meyer, an economist at Kerns & Associates working with the pork industry, for CNN. “You can tell anybody to open up a plant, but if the workers don’t show up, it doesn’t work.”
“It’s nice of the President to think we’re important and everything, but I don’t think it’s going to cause very many plants to open,” he added.
It’s yet another reminder of the many consequential ramifications of the pandemic, and how ignoring the disease and not taking precautionary measures can make things go from normal to very bad in a very short space of time.