National Consumers League

Keeping meatpacking workers safe in the age of COVID-19: A view from the front lines

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Meatpacking plants across America have become hot spots for COVID-19. Many plants have had to close due to the rapid increase in cases, with hundreds of workers contracting COVID-19 and a tragic number dying from the deadly virus.

Many packing plants have reopened over the past couple of weeks but the question still remains:  what measures have been put in place to address working conditions?

We interviewed someone who has firsthand knowledge of what is happening on the inside.  Robyn Robbins is the director of occupational health and safety at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). She has worked for UFCW for the past 24 years and prior to this position she was the Assistant Director for 18 years. UFCW is one of the largest labor unions in America. The Union represents workers in meatpacking, poultry, food processing industry, retail grocery, and healthcare—all considered to be essential workers.

Robbins told us: “Many workers are getting sick and dying, and the industry has a history of exploiting workers.” Indeed, the meat industry does not have an admirable record on protecting workers from hazards long before COVID-19. Meatpacking plants on average can employ up to 5,000 workers under one roof, and the conditions are very challenging.  Workers work closely on production lines, sometimes “shoulder to shoulder,” and the areas where they congregate off the line—such as break rooms and locker rooms—can get crowded.  The virus can spread quite easily under these conditions. And the industry has not done enough to allow workers to socially distance both on the production floor and off, or to notify the union when workers are infected, and who else has been exposed, so that the spread of the virus can be contained.

Even amid the pandemic, the demand for meat and poultry is constant. As a result, meatpacking plants have reopened, albeit not at full capacity.  Robbins noted that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)—the federal agency that regulates safety and healt—has taken a backseat and has not done on-site inspections. “There are no safety standards that regulate COVID-19 and no clear requirements or regulations that companies are required to follow and therefore there is no way to force companies to actually take precautionary measures recommended by the CDC to protect workers,” Robbins said. She went onto say that “OSHA is the only Federal government entity that can require companies to do anything to protect workers during this pandemic.” 

UFCW local union representatives and stewards are in the plants and work hard to get companies to do the right thing to protect workers through the collective bargaining process. “The challenge is trying to get the companies to space workers out on the production floor, which does require some slowing down of line speeds; some of the companies are doing the right thing by spacing workers out but many are not, and are relying too much on protective equipment and plastic barriers, which have not been proven to offer any protection, when it is really about putting more distance between people,” Robbins told us. Social distancing in break rooms is another challenge. Companies have made some effort to effectively separate tables and are putting tents outside for workers to take breaks in those designated areas. They are also staggering shift times in order to reduce the number of workers in break areas at any one time.

Robbins noted: “not all companies are testing workers when they should be, which is a major problem.” UFCW is calling on meatpacking plants to test workers, but companies are reluctant. “If companies worked more closely with the union, they would collectively be able to come up with strategies to isolate workers, redistribute the work, and be more effective over all in addressing the issues relating to COVID-19 and meatpacking workers.”

UFCW doesn’t agree that reopening of plants should take place where there have been outbreaks and where unsafe working conditions exist, unless the companies have taken the steps necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. “The companies that did shut down made the right decision to sanitize and clean the plants,” said Robbins. “Some have also started screening workers, set up hand sanitizing stations, providing masks, spacing out common areas, giving workers face shields and putting up plastic barriers on the floor between workers where it is possible – although again, there is no data to show that plastic barriers do anything to stem the spread of the virus.”

But this is still not enough. UFCW wants to see workplaces reconfigured so that workers can be six feet apart, both on the production floor and off. This is crucial for stemming the spread of the virus.  

Robbins said sick leave policies vary tremendously. “There are 500 local unions around the country, and the UFCW has been pushing for 14 days’ sick leave, successfully bargaining for this in contracts. Some companies are using a combination of different ways to allow workers to stay home when sick, many suspending their normal sick leave policy and making them more flexible. Some companies use a combination of paid sick days and short-term disability so that workers can stay home to recover and then return to work in a safe way. But not all companies are doing this; a few are even revoking paid sick leave policies that were in place at the beginning of this crisis.  This only will result in sick workers coming to work, because they have to in order to earn a living, and the virus will continue to spread, both inside plants, and outside in their communities.  It is bad corporate policy.”  

Due to the thousands of cases of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and many plants not operating at full capacity, meat shortages may continue. In closing, we so appreciate UFCW representing worker interests and Robyn Robbins’ service on NCL’s Board of Directors.