Employees at meatpacking plants are considered essential workers in the United States, so when others stayed home early in the pandemic, they kept working, often standing elbow to elbow in processing lines with little room for social distancing. And meatpacking workers are known to have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus of any occupation.
But lawmakers now say the impact was far worse than previously believed, with triple the number of infections and deaths at five of the country’s largest meatpacking conglomerates, where some major facilities became major hot spots early in the pandemic.
A congressional report, based on newly obtained documents from the nation’s five largest meat processing companies, found that between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021, roughly 59,000 workers contracted the coronavirus, nearly three times the 22,700 infections estimated over a longer period, between April 2020 and September 2021, by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization whose data on the industry has been widely cited.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which published the report on Wednesday, said that 269 deaths were recorded among plant workers in that time, triple the reporting network’s earlier estimates.
The group based its data on publicly available information from the five companies that control more than 80 percent of the U.S. market for beef and more than of the market for pork: JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef.
The lawmakers said the companies could have taken more steps to keep coronavirus infections and deaths at bay in their plants.
“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.
The committee identified plants where the virus spread the most in the pandemic’s first year, including a JBS plant in Hyrum, Utah, where 54 percent of employees contracted Covid-19. Half the workers at Tyson’s plant in Amarillo, Texas, contracted Covid-19, the report said, as did 44 percent of workers at the National Beef facility in Tama, Iowa.
The industry operates largely in rural areas, and depends disproportionately on Black and Latino immigrants to do the low-wage work of cutting, deboning and packing the chicken, beef and pork that reaches American dinner tables.
Meat processors faced criticism last year for a lack of worker protections. Many workers died as the virus swept through processing plants, some of which were forced to close temporarily. Workers staged walkouts over concerns that they were not being properly protected.
Some plants installed dividers between work stations and slowed their production lines in order to widen the space between workers. A few companies also offered financial incentives to keep workers on the job.
Tyson said it had spent more than $700 million on Covid safety measures and on introducing on-site medical services to its plants. The company announced this week that 96 percent of its workers were vaccinated.