Report: At least 59,000 meat workers caught COVID, 269 died

Virus Outbreak Meatpacking

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — At least 59,000 meatpacking workers caught COVID-19 and 269 workers died when the virus tore through the industry last year, which is significantly more than previously thought, according to a new U.S. House report released Wednesday.

The meatpacking industry was one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, with workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along production lines. The U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which examined internal documents from five of the biggest meatpacking companies, said companies could have done more to protect their workers.

The new estimate of infections in the industry is nearly three times higher than the 22,400 that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has said were infected or exposed. And the true number could be even higher because the companies' data didn't generally include coronavirus cases confirmed by outside testing or self reported by employees.

At the height of the outbreaks in the spring of 2020, U.S. meatpacking production fell to about 60% of normal as several major plants were forced to temporarily close for deep cleaning and safety upgrades or operated at slower speeds because of worker shortages. The report said companies were slow to take protective steps such as distributing protective equipment and installing barriers between work stations.

“Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily,” the report said.

Martin Rosas, who represents a UFCW chapter based in Kansas with over 17,000 members in three states, said the union pressed companies for better protections.

“The harsh reality is that many of the companies were slow to act in the early days of the outbreak, and whatever progress that was achieved was due to the union demanding action,&