UW News

May 27, 2020

UW experts on challenges to worker safety in meat processing industry


UW News

Designated critical infrastructure by President Trump in an executive order and encouraged to reopen or remain in operation, meat processing plants face challenges in keeping workers safe during the pandemic. Two University of Washington faculty members, with backgrounds in public health and human geography, explain the situation inside the plants and what can be done to improve it.

Marissa Baker

Marissa Baker

University of Washington School of Public Health assistant professor Marissa Baker, an expert in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences on worker safety related to infectious diseases, provided these comments on what the industry can do to protect workers.

“It is possible to keep workers safe in meat processing plants during this pandemic, but some major changes will need to be made to the work environment, and no single change is going to be adequate,” said Baker.

Additional quotes from Baker:

First, slow production:

“Most efforts to control the virus won’t be effective as long as the pace of work is kept as fast as it is. Workers tend to be crammed into these facilities, working hard to keep up with the quotas. This also means workers are breathing heavily as they try to keep up, and possibly are less likely to take breaks to practice hand hygiene due to time pressures.

“Slowing the pace of work would allow workers to have more space between them, promoting physical distancing, and allow workers to take frequent breaks to wash hands, change personal protective equipment, and safely move about the facility. Of course, this could result in a smaller workforce being in the facility at any time. This would then require the workplaces to still continue to pay all workers, even if they aren’t working every day, and be accommodating to the need for flexible working during these times.”

Empower workers to take paid sick leave:

“I think some of the most important controls to implement are policies and practices which are supportive of worker health. We hear a lot about paid sick leave, and just as important as giving workers access to paid sick leave is empowering workers to take it, without fear of retaliation or retribution once the worker returns to work.

“If a worker is worried they will be laid off for taking sick leave, then they won’t take it — even if they or a family member are sick and they really should be taking it. This can lead to presenteeism, which is when workers show up to work sick.

“If workers are showing up to work sick, this isn’t a problem with the worker, this is a problem with the workplace. Either adequate sick leave isn’t available, workers aren’t empowered to take it, or there are perceptions there will be retribution if the worker takes sick leave.”

For businesses:

“If you have workers showing up to work sick, then regardless of where the illness originated, this is very much a workplace problem and the culture and policies need to be fixed, or illness will continue to be a problem in your workplace.”

Worker rights and power in the workplace:

“In meat processing plants, as in most workplaces, there is a power imbalance that needs to be acknowledged and fixed. These workers are especially vulnerable for a number of reasons, including having fairly low pay, often being immigrant or refugee workers, and perhaps speaking English as a second language. These vulnerable workers are less likely to assert their rights to a healthy and safe workplace, and are more likely to accept unsafe workplaces in order to maintain employment.”

Cheapened workforce

Carrie Freshour

Carrie Freshour, a UW assistant professor of geography, focuses on the workplace conditions of industrial operations such as meatpacking plants and prisons, and the socioeconomics of the communities that surround them. Her past research is centered on poulty-processing plants in the American South.

“The regional variations in regards to labor laws, worker protection and union density greatly influence the power imbalances within this industry,” Freshour said. “Our country’s meat is cheap because we’ve cheapened the workforce. There is an underlying devaluing of human life in our 99-cent order of chicken nuggets.”

Additional quotes from Freshour:

On meatpacking plants, by the numbers:

“Today, U.S. slaughterhouses and processing plants employ up to 5,000 workers on the high end, with most plants over employing over 1,000 across multiple shifts. This is a key reason processing plants have become major sites of infection: the sheer number of workers in close proximity, working at a very fast pace of work, and over long shifts.”

The importance of “line speed-ups” to industry:

“The industry depends on this constant drive to increase the rate and pace of slaughter, tying technological improvements, including automation, to speed-ups, while pushing workers to their physical limits. These factors are tied to the number of animals slaughtered each day, so unlike other manufacturing industries, work “must go on” or the product, live animals, are an unsalvageable loss to the industry. So while COVID-19 highlights the conditions within the plants, I think these conditions only scratch the surface of broader, bigger problems within our industrial food system. ”

How circumstances vary by region, industry:

“Poultry processing, the lowest-paid of the three meat processing industries, has, since its inception, depended on women workers in Southern states with few labor protections. This is not to say that workers have been acquiescent, but that the industry leaders have a long anti-labor history, which includes the displacement of Black workers with largely undocumented Latinx workers, refugees, and even incarcerated workers.”

“In Washington state, three workers have died of COVID-19 at a plant made up of a majority of Latinx immigrant and Burmese/Karen refugee workers, according to local organizers. In the South, in states with a recent history of anti-immigration legislation, many plants have returned to a majority Black workforce. In addition to these distinctions, there are major gendered differences within and across industries.”

Workers end up choosing between health and paycheck:

“In states across the South, where poultry processing is concentrated, there are no state-level mandates for paid sick leave. Now, several large processing companies have relaxed some of their policies on worker absences. For most of these plants, workers receive points for missing a day, and once they’ve missed more than six or seven, they’re immediately fired. Under COVID-19, plants are waiving these policies, but workers are then forced to choose between prioritizing their health by staying home from work or their paycheck. Because wages are so low to begin with, many workers are living paycheck to paycheck so that missing one week would be devastating under any circumstances.”





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