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...

 

Few Other Opportunities ...

 

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https://jacobinmag.com/2020/11/meatpacking-tyson-covid-symptoms-work