Meatpacking Workers With COVID-19 Symptoms Are Still Being Forced to Work
Throughout the pandemic, the meatpacking industry has treated its workers as disposable. And even now, as cases spike again, workers are being forced to show up even if they could be sick with COVID-19.
By Heather Schlitz, Jacobin Magazine
Nov 18, 2020
In April, despite his fever, a meatpacking worker continued to carve neck bones out of pig carcasses at a JBS plant in Iowa.
Two weeks later, he would test positive for COVID-19. But in the meantime, he said, he kept clocking in because of a punitive attendance system widely used in meatpacking plants: the point system.
Under the policy, workers usually receive a point or points for missing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.
For a few months earlier this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being.
However, the point system has endured at Tyson and JBS plants throughout the pandemic, and it has continued to coerce people with potential COVID-19 symptoms into showing up to work, said plant employees, their family members, activists, and researchers.
“People are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfredo, a machine operator in a Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas, said through an interpreter. He asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of retribution.
“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working,” he continued. “If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”
Spokespeople for the country’s two biggest meat processing companies said employees are encouraged to stay home while ill.
“Our current attendance policy encourages our people to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
“Regardless of our attendance policy, at no point during the pandemic have we assessed attendance points against team members for absences due to documented illness,” JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said.
Still, the point system has likely contributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oliva, cofounder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a nonprofit that organizes food industry workers.
“It’s probably one of the better propagators for the coronavirus that we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s absolutely disastrous to have a point system in the midst of a pandemic.”
Workers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home without penalty is if they test positive for the disease. They are required to go to work if they’re waiting for test results, they said.
Once he tested positive, the Iowa worker, fifty, was allowed to miss work without racking up points, he said. He requested anonymity because he fears losing his job.
Complicating the situation is that many workers struggle to access testing or avoid COVID-19 tests due to the cost, wait times, and fear of being targeted by immigration authorities, workers and advocates said.
The point system varies from plant to plant.
At the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, where about three hundred workers have contracted the virus, employees can rack up six points before they’re fired, according to a document shared by the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
At a JBS plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, it’s seven points, and at a Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas, where hundreds of workers have fallen ill, it’s fourteen points, according to screenshots and photos shared by meatpacking workers in those plants.
At the Tyson plant, the company’s general attendance policy notes...
New System for the Pandemic
Before the pandemic, the JBS plant in Greeley allowed 7.5 points before a firing. Now, it’s six...
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