Lives on the Line: What Essential Workers Say Meat Processing Plants Are Like as COVID-19 Blazes Through

Workers at processing plants cut and package pork on assembly lines.
Workers slaughter, cut and package meat at processing plants across the country.Getty

Meat packing workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the thousands as employees say they're working under dangerous conditions.

President Trump signed an order late Tuesday declaring meat processing plants a “critical infrastructure” that must keep operating because mass coronavirus closures — more than 22 in the past few weeks — are threatening the country's meat supply.

His declaration prompted immediate outcries from union leaders, politicians and worker advocates who said the order further threatens the lives of plant employees, thousands of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.

The people hardest hit by the coronavirus blazing through meat packing plants are the workers themselves, who toil under extreme conditions, often with limited protection. Here is a look at what it's like to be on the front lines of slaughtering and packaging meat that ends up on American tables. 

Life on the Line

They stand shoulder to shoulder in refrigerated plants, cutting and packaging animal carcasses that speed by on assembly lines.

They stand for hours, wielding knives sharp enough to cut paper, to slice pieces of meat in giant facilities with employees numbering in the hundreds and thousands. Even in normal times, the grueling work is a special kind of hard, say advocacy groups representing employees.

In these pandemic days, the work is now terrifying, the groups said.

With the advent of coronavirus, which erupted in hot spots at processing plants and has swept through the industry, more than 4,400 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus, and at least 18 have died thus far, according to USATODAY/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking.

Workers tested positive in at least 80 plants in 26 states, the survey said, and there have been 28 closures of at least one day.

"The workers are really, really scared. They're very concerned about getting infected and worried about bringing the infection to their homes," Axel Fuentes, who heads the Rural Community Workers Alliance in Missouri, told

The organization and an unnamed worker filed a federal class action lawsuit last week, claiming Smithfield Foods, a China-based conglomerate and the world's largest pork supplier, was endangering workers at its Milan, Missouri plant, thereby creating a public nuisance. 

The plant provided inadequate protective equipment to workers, refused to give them time to wash their hands, and discouraged sick employees from taking time off, according to the complaint.

Workers have also been disciplined for taking time to cover their mouths while coughing or sneezing, because it could cause them to miss pieces of meat coming down the processing line, the suit said.

"Workers only have a few seconds to work that piece of meat," said Fuentes, who has advocated for workers' rights at the plant, which employs more than 1,000 people, for 12 years. The facility has a longstanding history of not protecting its staff, he said, and of penalizing workers for paltry offenses, such as taking too long on bathroom breaks.

"Workers urinate and defecate on themselves. I hear that from them," Fuentes said. Some female workers have told him they wear diapers on the line, he said.

A Smithfield spokeswoman dismissed the claims. 

“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times,” said Keira Lombardo.  The company does not comment on pending litigation, she told The New York Times, but she said the allegations “include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded.” 

Company lawyers said Thursday that Trump's declaration should result in the suit's dismissal. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently investigating conditions at the plant.

Because testing facilities are limited in the rural community surrounding the plant, there are no figures on the number of employees who may have contracted the virus, Fuentes said. 

"The whole community is at risk," he said. "The kids aren't going to school. So the workers have to find child care and the parents are afraid the children will carry the infection to babysitters and to other children, and their families. And the workers are all in the grocery stores."

The hardest-hit plant is Smithfield's pork processing plant in South Dakota, which closed indefinitely in mid-April after hundreds of workers tested positive for the virus at the sprawling facility. More than 4,500 people work at the plant.

The number of infected, including their families members, has reached nearly 1,000, according to the South Dakota Dream Coalition, which advocates on behalf of workers at the non-union plant.

The facility provides up to 5% of the country's pork products.

"We had plenty of time to prepare for this," said Nancy Reynoza of the nonprofit group. "We still had some weeks in there were they could have protected their employees," she said of plant managers. "I don't think that they really care for their employees."

Workers were not provided masks and worked in extremely crowded conditions, she said, with workers packed by the hundreds into lunch breaks and locker rooms. Employees told her of filthy bathrooms with no soap or paper towels, she said.

Smithfield officials, like other plant owners, say they did everything they could to safeguard their employees, only to face the same shortages as others in the ongoing crisis, including shortages of protective equipment.

Additionally, industry managers said they struggled to juggle protecting workers and providing food to consumers as supply chains buckled for meat packers, meat farmers and produce growers as well.

After shuttering its Sioux City facility, Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan issued a statement saying America's meat supply had been pushed "perilously close" to the edge.

"It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," he said.

Meat packing plant workers are predominately legal immigrants, according to advocacy groups, comprising Latin Americans and African nationals. They earn upwards of $17 per hour.

"The economy in South Dakota isn't that expensive, so that money goes a long way," said Reynoza. "These people are able to put their kids through college, many of them have been able to buy a home. One of the employees has a restaurant (so) she works the night shift."

They are proud to work, she said. "They just want to be safe."

Life During Wartime

President Trump consistently says the United States is at war against an "invisible enemy" during this epidemic. Latest figures show more than 1 million people have tested positive for COVID-19, the world's largest case number. More than 61,000 have died.

It is a war with multiple fronts — protecting the public from the virus and trying to protect the economy as it reels under lost jobs, wages, food production and retail revenues.

Late Tuesday, Trump invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as an essential infrastructure that must remain open. The government is expected to provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance on best practices.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” John H. Tyson, board chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., the country's biggest meat processor, wrote in a full-page newspaper ad published Sunday in the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“We have a responsibility to feed our country,” the ad said. “It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA issued safety guidelines for the plants, encouraging the use of PPE and social distancing. The guidelines, as well as those included in Trump's declaration, are voluntary.

Tyson also said up to 80% of its meat production could be cut off if plants cannot remain open. 

After Trump signed the order, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said that the company appreciated the White House's effort.

“The safety of our team members will remain our top priority as we work with the [Agriculture Department] on next steps,” he said. “We’ve been screening worker temperatures, requiring protective face coverings and conducting additional cleaning and sanitizing. We’ve also implemented social distancing measures, such as workstation dividers and more break room space.”

But workers say those measures haven't provided much comfort, contending that the dividers, when present, are plastic sheets installed between employees on the busy assembly lines that don't reach beyond their waists, and that public areas such as hallways, lunch rooms and bathrooms, are still occupied by large groups of workers.

Some industry union leaders say keeping the plants open means a "death sentence" for those on the job, and others said workers may simply just refuse to show up, leaving the facilities with a diminishing source of labor.

But in the end, say workers' advocates, it is the employees who will pay the biggest price. All they want, say activists, is the opportunity to work under safe conditions.

"It doesn't matter that they have to stand there for hours," said Reynoza of the South Dakota Dream Coalition. "They're very appreciative of having a job .... The thing that really touches my heart is that these people want to go back to work. They just want to be safe.

"They just want to work to feed their families and put food on the table of Americans."