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COVID-19 Outbreaks at Meat Plants Underscore Worker Safety Concerns

In addition to close distances on the assembly lines, meat plant workers often have to clean up in crowded locker rooms. (Adobe Stock)
In addition to close distances on the assembly lines, meat plant workers often have to clean up in crowded locker rooms. (Adobe Stock)
April 17, 2020

DES MOINES, Iowa - The temporary closing of meat-processing plants has raised concerns over food supplies during the pandemic. But in states like Iowa and South Dakota, they also renew demands for worker safety.

At least two plants in Iowa suspended operations after a number of employees tested positive for COVID-19, including a pair of deaths considered related to the pandemic.

Rafael Morataya, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, says leaders of these states need to ensure that proper protection measures are being enforced.

"Worker stations are so close, so I'm definitely saying follow the OSHA and CDC guidelines [that] include this, right? Maintain six feet between workers," says Morataya.

The Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota recently closed because of a large COVID-19 outbreak there.

Morataya says many immigrants work at these plants. He believes it isn't fair for them to decide either to keep working or risk exposure to the virus.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says more testing supplies are being sent to plants. The South Dakota plant was closed after the governor there made the request to the company.

However, the two governors - both Republicans - are being criticized for resisting "stay-at-home" orders, and are being called upon to provide more help for plant workers. Morataya says the concerns are nothing new.

"Sometimes pregnant women don't have the time to go to the restroom, and you hear that all the time from meat plant workers," says Morataya.

Some companies acknowledge higher absence rates of employees worried about becoming infected. Tyson Foods says it's taking workers' temperature before they go into facilities and has implemented social-distancing measures.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - IA