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The workers told stories of wet masks splotched with blood. One woman said she asked a supervisor to use the bathroom because she’d had her period. He wiped his hand through the blood of a slaughtered animal to mock her.

At night, some struggled to hold a comb or toothbrush in aching hands. With so many out of work due to COVID-19, they sliced cuts of beef, pork and chicken with electric knives faster than ever to keep grocery stores stocked.

As the early August heat sweltered outside, meatpacking plant workers shared these stories under the air conditioning in a committee hearing in the Nebraska State Capitol. They testified for legislation offering them enforceable COVID-19 protections at work, knowing their employers could be watching.

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Days later their efforts died after too few senators voted to suspend the body’s rules and allow discussion.

In the months since, the number of Nebraska’s meatpacking workers who caught the virus totaled nearly 7,000 by mid-January. Twenty six have died, according to advocates. Many came to work with the virus, afraid they’d lose their jobs or be denied sick leave. 

According to federal reports, three of the biggest plants in Nebraska reported a total of 14 deaths in 2020. Most hadn’t had a single recorded death in years. All but one of the deaths were listed as health related. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety, has been criticized for its response to COVID-19 in meat processing plants. Calls made to the Omaha-area OSHA office were not returned. Out of $4 million in penalties it’s assigned, the agency fined the multibillion-dollar industry, which in July had been linked to upwards of 310,000 cases of COVID-19, less than $100,000. No fines have been issued for Nebraska food processors, according to a Reader analysis. There is one part-time state employee tasked with upholding these workers’ rights, and according to a report from the Nebraska Department of Labor, that official spent most of 2020 helping to manage the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system.

“I think the summary is still the same,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, director of Nebraska Appleseed’s Immigrants and Communities Program, who told The Reader in May packing plants were far from safe for workers. “We’re not even close to what we need.”

And while the vaccine, and prioritizing meatpacking workers to receive it, offers some hope, Gov. Pete Ricketts’ staff has said undocumented immigrants will receive less priority than legal citizens. Advocates doubt that will be true in an industry that employs many undocumented people, but the confusion sews fear.

“These are people who’ve worked tirelessly since the time they were named essential,” said Dulce Castañeda, a co-founder of the advocacy group Children of Smithfield in Crete and the daughter of a meatpacking plant worker. “They’ve worked hard to put food on our tables and to all of the sudden turn around and say, you’re not that important or you’re not a priority or you don’t actually matter that much, it’s especially offensive.”

Dulce Castañeda stands under a fountain in Crete City Park in Crete, Neb. on Jan. 23, 2021. Castañeda and her friends have started Children of Smithfield to advocate for their parents who work in the Smithfield plant outside Crete. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But even if the vaccine rolls out smoothly, advocates say workers will need COVID-19 protections until herd immunity is achieved, which may take much of 2021. And it still does little to address the industry’s systemic issues and lax accountability, highlighted by the virus.

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Both are tasks of a new bill in the Nebraska Legislature’s 2021 session. On Jan. 11, it was introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas, who backed the failed meatpacking protection bill in 2020.

Many hope the outcome this year will be different. But others wonder what’s really changed.

“I do not believe all the senators that are on the other side have the courage to step up and do the right thing,” said Eric Reeder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents food workers in Nebraska. “I don’t have a lot of faith in them.”

Hot Spots Smoldering

When COVID-19 came to Nebraska, it hammered an industry of nearly 12,000 slaughterers, trimmers and other employees. Meat processing is one of the most popular occupations in the state, and the industry is one of the country’s largest.

In April, areas like Grand Island, Dakota City and Crete not only outpaced Omaha in infections and deaths, but the rest of the country.

“I’d hate for this to be the new normal for how we say, ‘So long friend,’” Jose Gayatan told The Reader in April after a funeral for someone who died of complications caused by COVID-19. His friend worked at the JBS USA meatpacking plant in Grand Island.

Protections like masks and hand sanitizer came slowly, while advocates say other measures, such as social distancing, updated ventilation, temperature checks and plastic barriers, either never came or weren’t widely implemented.

Darcy Tromanhauser, Nebraska Appleseed.

“I don’t think we can point to a single plant where we’ve heard people feel safe, even if that plant can lift up one or two things they’ve done,” Tromanhauser said. “Usually what follows if you’re speaking with workers is that protection itself is inconsistent.”

With vaccines coming to meatpacking workers soon, some fear protections will roll back. Advocates don’t know companies’ plans, but sick pay, keeping high-risk employees out and other measures undoubtedly interfere with production, they said. 

“As we roll out the vaccine, there’s this perception that this will become less and less necessary,” said Micky Devitt, Legal and Policy Coordinator for Heartland Workers Center. “I think that’s not the case … it’s as urgent as ever. We know the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is urging everyone to remain vigilant until we reach that herd immunity level, and that could be months and months.”

Sen. Vargas’ new COVID-19 protection bill includes requirements such as:

  • maintaining six feet of social distance at work;
  • providing free masks and face shields;
  • making hand sanitizer available to everyone;
  • disinfecting work surfaces;
  • doing temperature checks;
  • allowing employees to get COVID-19 tests on company time and pay;
  • paying sick leave; and
  • communicating when a person’s tested positive for COVID-19.

Companies that don’t follow these standards, or put workers in an unsafe work environment, face fines of at least $5,000 for a first-time offense and $50,000 thereafter.

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This bill will have the benefit of facing fewer logistical hurdles than Vargas’ 2020 bill. Because it was introduced after the session reconvened from a pandemic hiatus, many senators wanted to use remaining time on other issues, such as property taxes and school spending. Vargas says this can’t get sidelined again.

“This is not just important,” Vargas said in a January press conference, “This is urgent and this is critical.”

State Sen. Tony Vargas. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Legislature.

The bill would be a significant help to Reeder, whose union is one of the few entities holding Nebraska’s meatpacking facilities accountable.

Though he doesn’t know how many complaints Nebraska’s UFCW chapter has received, he said the phones have “rang off the wall,” since the pandemic began. Reeder said nearly every complaint his team gets is solved immediately when the union and company representatives talk it out. Some rise to the level of legal arbitration. 

As a result, people have gotten more and better masks. Ensuring bathroom breaks has risen to the top of employee rights education. Company executives have committed to better communication with the union after finding out how managers ran their plants.

The problem is it’s hard to be proactive with so many workers and plants across the state, which are all run by different companies with different workers and different problems. Of the approximately 50 processing plants in Nebraska, the UFCW is only in 14, though they’ll take complaints from any of them. 

There needs to be someone in charge, Reeder said. Right now, it doesn’t feel like there is.

“We have these inconsistencies, because I think the companies, broad picture, want to protect the workplace,” Reeder said. “I think they want to. But the question is how far are they responsible to go?”

Eric Reeder stands in a garage of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 293 office in Omaha. Reeder is the president of the union, which has been a primary voice in advocating for workers during, as well as before, the pandemic. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Reeder wants OSHA to take the reins. Early in the pandemic, OSHA issued guidelines for COVID-19 in the workplace. But it’s since been criticized for assigning light fines and failing to uphold its own rules.

Meanwhile, there have been more injuries as understaffed lines continue running at high speeds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has limits on beef and poultry line speeds for food safety, but none for pork, and even the regulated line speeds are the subjects of lawsuits.

“That’s been the nature of some of our grievances, that they’re running the lines the same speed with less people because you have people out on quarantine,” Reeder said. “You have people working longer hours, so you’re automatically going to see an unsafe work environment due to that.”

Nebraska’s official accountability arm has also been underutilized. At the turn of the millennium, Nebraska created both a meatpacking workers’ bill of rights and an employee to uphold them.

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The Nebraska Department of Labor declined The Reader’s request to interview the state employee. Instead, it sent a report prepared for Sen. Vargas in November showing the part-time rights coordinator spent as little as 2.23% of her time on meatpacking plants in one month. The bulk of her time was spent processing unemployment claims. The employee also had to care for her daughter due to public schools closing, further limiting her time for plant visits, the report said.

But even if she had dedicated all her 20 hours per week to meatpacking plants, the meatpacking workers’ rights coordinator has little authority. According to statute, they can respond to complaints, tour plants and write reports, but they can’t issue penalties or fines. If Sen. Vargas’ bill passes, the employee would recommend fines for violating the meatpacking workers’ bill of rights or COVID-19 protections to the state’s labor commissioner.

It’s a step in fighting a system that’s long taken advantage of vulnerable people, subjecting them to dangerous work, low pay and managerial abuse.

Of the 54 complaints Nebraska’s meatpacking workers’ rights coordinator responded to last year, only five dealt with COVID-19. Most workers complained of verbal abuse, unsafe working conditions, managers forcing them to do work doctors warned against and fear of retaliation.

It’s not surprising to people like Tromanhauser. She’s worked in this field for more than 15 years and says the abuse has only gotten worse.

“Literally people describe to us on a regular basis, ‘They treat us like animals,’ ‘They care more about the meat than the people,’ ‘They’re killing the cows immediately but the rest of us little by little,’” Tromanhauser said.

Documentation has gotten better, including reports like one from the National Employment Law Project, which shows that while workplace deaths are on the rise, OSHA has nearly 128 fewer inspectors than it did nearly 40 years ago. Much of that decline happened during President Donald Trump’s time in office.

It’s a tough trend to buck given America’s demand for cheap, abundant meat. But advocates say they’re encouraged as more people see what this meat costs.

Reeder hopes enough people can sway their representatives. People could also stop buying from producers like JBS USA, Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield. He doesn’t want that, which would hurt workers, too, but he said something has to change. 

“Until the plants decide to do some of this stuff on their own or in conjunction with us, the government needs to step in,” he said. “They need to tell them, just like years ago when we had sweatshops where people would get hurt, that you can’t treat people like this.”

Gathering, Organizing, Hope

Denise Bowyer didn’t know how she would spend her retirement. But she didn’t expect it to involve meatpacking.

The 65-year-old had been a vice president of a large union insurance company, living in Maryland near Washington, D.C. When she moved back to Omaha after 35 years away in December 2019, she started volunteering with an immigration advocacy group. When the pandemic started infecting meatpacking workers in Nebraska, 66% of which are immigrants according to the Migration Policy Institute, she went to Grand Island to hand out masks to workers.

From there she kept coming back. When she watched Sen. Vargas’ 2020 bill for COVID-19 protections in meatpacking facilities fail, she became more determined.

“It was a level of denial [from senators] that I found, not that I was upset by it, but angry that we need to do a better job of telling these stories and making them aware and putting the political pressure on them,” she said.

Denise Bowyer sits with Clark, her 3-year-old labradoodle, in her home in West Omaha on Jan. 22, 2021. Bowyer recently moved back to Omaha from Maryland and has been involved in advocating for the rights of meatpacking plant workers. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The pandemic has mobilized many to combat glaring inequities. Bowyer started with handing out masks, and now she volunteers about 20 hours a week to help the UFCW organize workers. Unlikely allies have found common ground in the statewide coalition Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers.

“I don’t think, to my knowledge, the Heartland Workers Center has done a lot of work with the farmers’ union, for example,” Devitt said. “GC Resolve, [which] also does work in farming justice, the teachers unions, the AFL-CIO, would not necessarily have been in alignment on these issues [before COVID-19].”

They’ve also found friends at the federal level. Castañeda said she’s had more contact with the transition team of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris then she ever had with Ricketts, who held one short phone call with her organization, she said.

Biden also signed an executive order on Jan. 21 directing OSHA to reevaluate its guidelines and enforcements as well as work with states to devise COVID-19 workplace protection plans. For Tromanhauser the new administration’s plan, combined with movement at the state level, is reason to be hopeful.

“I would say a both-hand approach has been shown to be really necessary,” she said. “What’s missing is enforceable protections and then getting those at whatever level we can get them.”

But it doesn’t mean the work in Nebraska is done. Advocates said they need to organize more to bring an even stronger message to the legislature this year.

That seems to have been happening. While advocates work to recruit allies, Reeder said more people are joining the union, and workers at non-union plants want to start organizing, though COVID-19 has hampered those conversations.

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For Castañeda, no matter the circumstances the tide is clearly changing.

“We’ve been focused on small wins,” she said, “and I think small victories are important in keeping the bigger picture in mind.”

Bowyer, who came from a union job that advocated for underserved families, said this is a journey of small wins. Right now the conversation is about basic protections. But it won’t always be that way.

A sign of better days to come recently showed up on her computer.

Her application for a job in OSHA had been sent to Biden’s presidential personnel office.

Starting another career after her retirement wasn’t Bowyer’s plan, but after a year advocating for meatpacking plant workers she wants to make sure the right changes get made. And if it doesn’t work, she’ll still be here. No matter how big or small, advocates can’t let up.

“When you go in and organize and get some wins it helps alleviate some of that fear,” Bowyer said. “And I think that’s what people are committed to. I think people understand there’s a lot of fear that getting an extra mask isn’t going to take care of. But that’s a start. That’s where you start.”

Something Has to Happen

The reality Nebraska’s meatpacking workers face isn’t new to Dulce Castañeda. She’s watched her small town of Crete move in rhythm with the operational hours of the Smithfield pork processing plant.

There, each piece of meat takes seconds to slice into a recognizable product. But seconds multiply into hours, days, months and years. For some, decades pass along the line.

What’s changed is the opportunity to actually treat workers like her dad as essential.

Castañeda hopes that involves Nebraska senators passing a bill to install new COVID-19 protections. She hopes the new president will up federal oversight while state officials look at local accountability. But more than anything she hopes the light on this issue won’t die out.

Accomplishing that won’t be easy. These issues are longstanding and seem so entrenched that it will take more than a few laws to undo. 

But it’s starting. The small wins, the organizing, the reassurance that these are issues worth fighting for, these are lead dominos in a chain reaction that can’t be stopped, no matter what happens.

“Something,” Castañeda’s dad told her, “has to come of everything you guys have been doing.”

Contact the writer at chris@thereader.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrismbowling.

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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