By Chris Bowling
The cars lined up outside the church under wispy clouds and cool Spring weather, idling over the faded cement parking lot.
Jose Gayatan turned off the ignition to his Ford F-350 van, pulled the mask over his face and walked toward Iglesia Evangélica Bethania Pentecostés. The 42-year-old construction worker has spent half his life in Grand Island and worshipped here for many of those years. But the funeral on Monday, May 4 came without comforts he’d come to expect.
Instead of a community gathering to grieve, Gayatan entered alone while other drivers waited their turn outside. He offered condolences to the family and stared at the closed casket holding his friend. Fifteen minutes later he climbed into his truck, turned the ignition and drove away.
“I’d hate for this to be the new normal,” he said, “for how we say, ‘So long friend.’”
Reynaldo Ramirez died of complications from the novel coronavirus, the spread of which has crippled Grand Island, at one point making it one of the highest infectious hot spots in the country. Guyatan said Ramirez, like many others in Grand Island, caught the virus at his workplace less than a mile down the train tracks from where his funeral was held.
The JBS beef processing plant, where thousands of people slice, cut and process the meat that ends up on grocery store’s shelves and restaurant’s plates.
It’s the same story in Crete, Dakota City, Omaha, Fremont and other communities. At one point, one in six COVID-19 infections was a meatpacking or food processing worker. In those facilities, protections lagged even as officials deemed the labor essential, ignoring calls to close plants as infections multiplied.
“Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food?” Gov. Pete Ricketts asked at a daily press briefing. “Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products.”
“Trust me,” he added, “this would cause civil unrest.”
Now plants across the state are adopting new safety procedures including plastic barriers, temperature checks, masks, gloves and social distancing. But workers, who agreed to speak anonymously, and their family members as well as community advocates say it’s a scattershot approach with many still lacking protections for workers. Guyatan said in Grand Island he hears mixed opinions. Some think the plants have done a good job, others still fear the unknown. That fear has only grown stronger as the state eases into reopening.
“They don’t want to work,” said Gloria Sarmiento, a senior community organizer with Nebraska Appleseed. “They say they have to go to work because they need to feed their family. it’s not safe. it’s not safe inside.”
Advocates want more plant transparency, government accountability and clear, enforceable standards, said Darcy Tromanhauser, program director with Nebraska Appleseed. Organizations like Nebraska Appleseed. But when asked whether she can assign a percentage to their progress, Tromanhauser said they’re “not even close” to halfway there.
“Across the board there’s still a deeply worrisome lack of safety protections, too many people still working elbow and the plant closures themselves show we’re not there yet,” she said. “We need better protections in place in order to keep food production going.”
But even as the fight for these changes continues, there’s already been so much damage done. Sickness and death that some can’t help but think would have been avoided had the mostly minority immigrant workers been a different demographic.
“I do wonder, if a majority of the people at the plant were white,” asked Dulce Castañeda, the daughter of a meatpacking worker and community organizer in Crete, “would it be handled the same way?”
Looking to each house on her street in Crete, Castañeda could tell which of her neighbors were sick inside with the coronavirus.
One there. Another in that house. Two over there.
Many of them, like her parents are immigrants and refugees who built a life in the small town southwest of Lincoln working at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant that employs nearly a third of Crete’s 6,900 residents. The consistent hours and pay allowed families like Castañeda’s, whose parents and siblings immigrated from Mexico, to buy homes, send their kids to better schools and watch them go to college.
Growing up in Crete, and later working in local government, she saw the positive effects Smithfield had on the community. From giving people jobs to sponsoring community events. But then as infections spread, the relationship grew tense as misinformation and lack of transparency left workers in the dark about their safety.
Castañeda and six of her friends, whose parents also worked at the plant, shared their fears for both their parents safety. They needed a voice, but speaking out against the plant carried its own dangers.
Castañeda and her friends started Children of Smithfield, drawing media attention and pressuring Smithfield with media attention and socially distanced protests. The plant agreed to close in late April, but walked back the decision a day later.
Castañeda said she’s definitely seen improvement but the plant is missing a lot of workers now, she said. Whether that’s mostly people who are sick or just afraid to come back, she doesn’t know, but it’s indicative that the problem is far from over.
“Most people feel helpless,” Castañeda said.
What workers need now are clear expectations and transparency, which is high demand following Ricketts’ statement that the state would not release business-specific data about COVID-19 cases.
In response, Heartland Worker Center, the Union Food and Workers International Union and others have teamed up with each other as well as community leaders to continue gathering information. From there, they’re working with state senators and other government entities to get every facility up to the same level.
“I don’t think we have the luxury of the government sitting back waiting to see if this clears up or cases go down,” said Eric Reeder, president of the UCFW Local 293 in Nebraska. “I don’t think the luxury of time is here, I think we need to act now.”
One worker, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said there are still huge communication barriers in plants where people can speak dozens of different languages. That compounds with existing disconnects between what workers hear on the floor and what they’re told by plant managers.
“The plant started late to take measurements and they did not give information,” they said. “They denied that people had been infected, but we knew.”
Plants are required to follow standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, advocates say that’s not happening at every plant. Too many vague guidelines lead to some plants implementing more protections than others or shaving a few days off of mandatory sick leaves.
“If you continue to run this way, you’re going to continue to lose workers,” Reeder said. “They’ll keep getting sick until you can’t run anymore.”
The University of Nebraska Medicine Center recently released a meatpacking playbook with recommendations and guidelines for these plants. The guidelines grew out of several plant tours in April that showed university health officials a wide range of preparedness, said Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness for Nebraska Medicine.
Schwedhelm said they’ve worked with several plants to increase protections and make facilities safer for workers. And while working with UNMC and consulting this playbook is completely voluntary, Schwedhelm said she trusts plant owners to take this seriously.
“Their job is to feed America in all those different realms and they understand the importance of their mission,” she said. “So I see them doing a lot of hard work to do everything they can right now. Is there more that can be done? always, for all of us.”
In addition to adding safety measures and closing some plants for deep cleans, the state has also added testing sites in communities like Grand Island or Schuyler. That’s increased testing capacities in areas with high concentrations of meatpacking and food processing workers.
However, the $27 million program that seemingly came together in days has come under fire for its efficiency and effectiveness. Some state senators have called on Ricketts to end the program and reinvest that money back into local hospitals, which the governor has rejected.
Understanding the issue has also become more challenging. Last week Ricketts announced the state would no longer release data showing the number of infections at particular businesses, including meatpacking and food processing plants.
The decision has earned Ricketts scathing airtime on The Rachel Maddow Show.
“This is the kind of thing you go down in the history books for, Gov. Ricketts,” Maddow said. “You’re going to be famous for this, long after you’re gone.”
Ricketts said it’d be bad for business and that data could be unreliable anyway. But Adam Jacobs, an organizer in Grand Island said that leaves the door open for misinformation, fear and ultimately mistrust to fester.
“[Employees] don’t believe they’re being told the whole truth about what’s happening in their own workplace,” he said.
Especially right now as the state starts to reopen, it’s causing anxiety for everyone. Nebraska has chosen a regional approach to reopening based on localized data that shows whether cases are increasing or decreasing, whether hospitals are more or less full. Most counties will have reopened by mid-May. Plans have not yet been released for Hall County or Dakota County, both of which saw high cases among meatpacking and food processing workers.
Part of advocates’ concerns is that they don’t know what information Ricketts is using to make decisions on the state of these plants, said Tromanhauser. They know for example, he holds a weekly call with industry leaders, but they worry how detailed that information could be. Because right now it doesn’t feel like he’s getting the full story about the risks these workers face.
“It doesn’t feel like everyone is truly a part of the state’s vision or part of the plan,” Tromanhauser said. “The conversation about moving on is so out of touch with what families and communities around the state are experiencing.”
Jacobs said he’s worried it will give people the impression the danger is over. In fact, Grand Island, and many rural communities hit hard by COVID-19 are still regaining they’re footing.
“We’re more connected than we think we are,” Jacobs said. “While a regional reopening is better than opening the floodgates, it poses dangers because people feel free to move around a little more. I think we’re going to see some transmission from community to community.”
The mounting problems only set workers back further from safety implementations that advocates say should have been in place months ago. Nationally the UFCW has pleaded with state and federal leaders to implement safety measures. Locally health officials warned in March that if Nebraska plants continued operating the way they had been, infections would multiply and turn rural communities into a hot bed. Months later, the message has stayed the same.
“I don’t think the luxury of time is here,” said Reeder. “I think we need to act now.”
For someone who’s been a union member since he was 18, Reeder said it shouldn’t surprise him that it’d be hard to get plants to agree to changes that might interrupt line speeds and production. But he’s surprised just how hard this has been.
Across the country there are viral videos of people banging pots and pans to cheer on nurses. Charitable organizations have sprouted from nothing to support restaurants struggling through the pandemic. And last but not least, trillions–enough to match the gross domestic product of all but a handful of the world’s richest countries–have been spent trying to buoy America through the pandemic.
But when it comes to the low-income, often immigrant communities that work in these plants, Reeder and other advocates say officials’ support is lip service.
“Everyone from the governor down to the plant owners loves to talk about these employees as essential workers,” he said. “Yet they’re more than willing to sacrifice them and their families to a virus that could kill them.”
These days, the front lines for people fighting for those on the front lines is a desktop loaded with open internet tabs and rotating casts of Zoom callers.
Each day they share bits of information they’ve gleaned across the state, trying to find where holes still exist and how they can keep pushing the system.
Because right now there is a harsh spotlight on Nebraska and the way it’s handling infections in this industry.
But as the weeks pass and the change at plants seems outpaced by other facets of America’s essential work model, frustration is building. Even if they do get all the changes they want, advocates said they’re unsure if they’ll arrive quickly enough to alleviate fears of a second COVID-19 wave. Tromanhauser said plants need to be prepared for the next pandemic, or any flare ups that might occur before a vaccination is released, which could take until 2021.
But even more than the basic health risks, advocates and family members wonder what lessons people will take from this. Reeder said he doesn’t expect much to change. While there’s a lot of attention and compassion now, the fact is many of these issues in working conditions have existed for a long time.
Once the pandemic subsides, many of these plants will go back to living on the peripheral of the average American’s attention.
“I think people have short memories,” he said. “They want to look past the problem. The sooner we look past it the sooner it’ll be gone.”
Guyatan is optimistic people will remember the stories of people like his friend and the price their communities paid to keep food supplies moving. Castañeda is somewhere in the middle.
Given the geography and demographics of their community this could easily be pushed aside in coming months. It already seems like it is as the state moves to reopen while her friend’s parents still sit at home sick. But she’s more curious about the effect it will leave on her community.
Given the inseparability of Crete from its pork processing plant, Castañeda knows the town and it have to coexist, no matter how contentious the relationship is. What’s become more apparent is how it’s stitched workers and the whole community together.
The employees of Smithfield come from all over the world and speak a variety of languages. For years some of the only things that united them was their shared employment. But now at protests they’re uniting for their rights and safeties.
At one protest on May 2, Castañeda looked out onto about 150 cars stalled in the Smithfield parking lot. They held signs, honked their horns and stood on their hoods of their cars to show solidarity. They were Latino, black, white and Asian. They spoke a variety of languages. They were the workers or friends and family of workers who were tired of living in fear, who finally had an opportunity to make their voices heard.
“That was eye opening because they suddenly weren’t invisible sitting in this facility,” Castañeda said. “They were community members who represent our diversity.”
Additional reporting contributed by Karlha Velásquez.