Breaking News

In Nebraska, meat plant workers are afraid to go to work — but can't afford to stay home

"If it closed down, it would be devastating for families in town," said one JBS worker who chose to stay home from April 3 after he developed a cough. He tested positive Friday

With 3,500 workers, the JBS beef processing plant is one of the largest employers in Grand Island, Nebraska. It’s also the epicenter of the town’s COVID-19 outbreak: employees make up 28 of the 105 people confirmed to have the virus.
This has created a dilemma for workers whose livelihoods depend on the meat plant that remains open as an essential part of the food supply chain and the local economy at a time when many people are self-isolating: do they risk exposing themselves to the virus at work, or stay home without pay?
"The people who are still working there are very afraid of catching the virus and passing it to our families at home, but we cannot stop going to work because we need to keep food on the table," said one employee, who added she worked in the "intestine area" of the plant and did not wish to be named for fear of losing her job.
NBC News spoke to four current employees at JBS Grand Island, three on the condition of anonymity, as well as two former employees, advocacy groups and a union representative.
They all painted a similar picture: workers scared to go to work but in desperate need of income to feed their families, and widespread absenteeism leading to a reduction in the amount of meat being processed. At the same time, JBS has tried hard to assuage people’s fears with a range of new safety measures, such as plexiglass dividers and thermal cameras to detect fevers.
While some workers felt a sense of duty to ensure Americans remained fed, others were angry that the company wasn’t doing more to protect its employees.
"The cows that are slaughtered daily by the company are more important than their own workers," one said, adding that they earn between $16.50 and $25 per hour. "It’s not anyone’s dream job. Nothing in there is easy, but there are not many better opportunities for an immigrant who does not speak good English."
A spokesperson for JBS said in a statement that the company has experienced an uptick in people missing work but that it is not pushing employees to come in while sick or punishing them for missing work.
"If someone is sick or lives with someone who is sick, we send them home," the company said. "Every day, thousands of committed team members show up to the facility to help our community and our nation face this crisis. We salute and thank them."
With much of the United States still on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, close attention is being paid to the country's food supply chain. While nervous shoppers have cleared out supermarkets, those shelves have mostly been refilled with food and goods.
But the outbreak's reach into rural parts of America that fuel the food supply are causing concern. Grand Island is about 130 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, south of the three counties that boast the most beef production in the country.
What’s happening at JBS in Grand Island is also playing out at other meat processing plants across the nation, where workers kill, cut up and package pork, poultry and beef in close quarters to ensure America’s grocery stores remain stocked with hamburgers, steaks and chicken breasts.
Some plants have temporarily closed after workers fell ill. JBS closed another beef-processing plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for two weeks after several managers in the 1,000-strong plant developed flu-like symptoms. In Marshalltown, Iowa, the Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint in early April against a JBS meatpacking plant for failing to protect staff members during the pandemic.
At a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia, four employees have died from COVID-19. Several employees spoke to NBC News about conditions inside, with one describing having to work “shoulder to shoulder on the line.”
“We are really scared to come to work. We are risking our lives,” another employee said. “We don’t know who’s sick and we’re standing side by side.”
Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents employees at a variety of companies across the southeast, says he has received complaints from each of the more than 20 facilities, including the Camilla location.
“They’re fearful of taking this home to their families,” Fields said.
Hector Gonzalez, Tyson Foods’ senior vice-president in human resources, says the company is “heartbroken” over the deaths of its four employees, and that the Camilla facility is closed through the weekend to undergo deep cleaning for the fourth time.
The company describes additional precautions, including plastic divisions between some workers and a relaxed attendance policy, “to ensure that team members feel encouraged to stay home if they are not feeling well.”
But Fields said these and other security measures from companies are not enough.
“If we can protect workers from when they walk in the door to when they walk out, that company has done what they needed to do.”
More Information

No comments