Annie Grant never missed a day of work on the packing line at a Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia where she spent almost 15 years — until the pandemic hit.
"She was the type of person who cared for other people, she was a great listener, real funny, a person who inspired others to do things to the best of their ability — she was that type of person," Willie Martin, one of Annie Grant’s sons, told Food Dive. He spoke about her life doing good deeds for others, whether it was baking cakes for the community or providing for her kids.
But her life was cut short earlier this month. At the age of 55, she died of coronavirus.
"It is crazy that her life was lost due to the company’s failure to respond to the pandemic," Martin said.
Grant is one of at least 17 worker deaths linked to coronavirus at meat processing plants. There was also Saul Sanchez, 78, who spent more than three decades working for a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado and Augustín Rodriguez, 64, who showed up to every shift for nearly 20 years at a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Each of those longtime plant workers will never work another shift again. As meat plants become hot spots for coronavirus, their families say these jobs cost them their lives.
In the last month, unions, activists, workers and family members have criticized the meat industry’s response to coronavirus for waiting too long to implement safety precautions and close plants as thousands of workers test positive for the virus.
But in the last few weeks that has shifted. At least 24 meat processing plants have closed temporarily or indefinitely as the outbreak spreads. Many are adding temperature readers, implementing extensive cleaning procedures and installing more distancing measures like plexiglass barriers between workers. These facilities typically have workers standing elbow-to-elbow and the close quarters have helped the virus spread.
Analysts and companies say the temporary closures could disrupt supply, but in the long term, protecting the workforce needs to be a top priority. Those who have lost loved ones argue that those actions should have been taken sooner.
Tyson confirmed to Food Dive last week that two people have died who worked at its Columbus Junction, Iowa plant and four at its Camilla, Georgia factory.
"We’re deeply saddened by the loss of team members at our plants. Their families are in our thoughts and prayers," Hector Gonzalez, senior vice president of human resources at Tyson Foods, told Food Dive in an email. "The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated communities in both states and throughout the world."
Essential workers, 'not sacrificial workers'
Unions say workers have fought for better safety precautions since the early days of the crisis.
"They are essential workers, but they are not sacrificial workers," Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, said. "Nobody signed up to be a sacrificial worker and we have demanded that these companies recognize that, take every step possible and at the end of the day, if an individual says ‘You know, it is too risky, I’m going to stay home,’ they should do that."
Young, who represents workers at four meat plants in Pennsylvania, spoke to Food Dive last week as he was on his way to do a walkthrough before reopening a JBS plant in Souderton.
He said it was going to be emotional because the chief shop steward Enock Benjamin, 70, died of COVID-19 after spending weeks in that plant making sure employees were protecting themselves.
"That was his role as a shop steward, but it was also what he loved about life," Young said. "He was a very nurturing and caring person and made sure everyone was doing what they had to do to be safe and it is just so sad that he succumbed to the very disease he was trying to protect all the workers here from."
The meat plants in Pennsylvania that Young’s union represents, including Cargill and JBS plants, chose to close facilities temporarily, and he applauded that. He said the federal government is at fault for not communicating the severity of the outbreak to companies soon enough.
"Nobody signed up to be a sacrificial worker and we have demanded that these companies recognize that, take every step possible and at the end of the day, if an individual says ‘You know, it is too risky, I’m going to stay home,’ they should do that."
Wendell Young IV
President, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776
“If you look at things in the lens of what we know today, clearly there are things that would have been done differently but there is a lot we didn’t know back then,” he said. “While government officials, including our president, knew back in November that this was coming, nobody did anything to prepare all Americans, and especially people who process food. We really feel that was a serious let down. In fact, I think it is criminal.”
As plants reopen with additional safety measures, Young said unions need to make sure all precautions are taken. He said these massive meat plants are not designed for social distancing so it is challenging to keep workers apart. The union is insisting people wear gloves and face masks or shields, which are trickier in these plants because they are frigid and shields fog up.
Jason Yarashes, lead attorney and program coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers, told Food Dive that he has been hearing from poultry plant workers in Virginia who say they are facing unsafe conditions but are afraid to speak up. He said many are still working tremendously close on the lines, masks are not universal and there is still inadequate social distancing.
"Particularly in areas like the boning lines, workers are standing side by side cutting raw chicken, breasts and tenders," he said. "Sometimes folks are working so close that there's occasions where they cut coworkers with their knives because they're standing so close."
Yarashes said many workers are scared about retaliation, particularly those who have immigration status issues.
"Folks are essentially left with a super difficult choice," he said. "They're either going in with this possibility of getting sick so they can feed their kids, or they don't [go in and] get sick, but they don't feed their kids or their families. It's this very difficult sort of undesirable Sophie's Choice that they're left with."
Typically when workers feel unsafe in the workplace, they can file a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but Yarashes said it's unclear how OSHA will respond to complaints related to COVID-19. Thousands have been filed in recent months, but the records don’t say what actions were taken. OSHA and CDC issued guidance Sunday night for meat and poultry processing facilities.
"Employers have not implemented a coronavirus protocol. Three employees have been confirmed positive with the coronavirus and there are twelve other possible cases. Management has not cleaned or disinfected the facilities," one OSHA complaint filed against a Tyson Foods plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas said.
Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2, which represents about 9,000 meatpacking workers at Cargill, National Beef and Smithfield in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, told Food Dive that since the beginning of March his union has pushed facilities to implement more safety precautions and some are more receptive than others. Delaying safety measures results in more positive cases, he said.
Most plants he represents have 2,500 people when fully staffed. Rosas, who worked at a packing plant for six years, said more facilities should stagger entry time, slow production and provide protective gear.
"Now, I don't have this silver bullet, but I can say recommendations that I believe might give them some good positive results in the long term," he said. "The fear is there, we are all afraid to go to work. I was at the plants last week and I was concerned about my well-being too like anyone else… We're all afraid to go anywhere now because this virus is very vicious."
Federal plant inspectors are also getting sick. A USDA spokesperson told Food Dive in an email last week that 137 Food Safety and Inspection Service employees have tested positive. FSIS employs about 6,500 inspectors, and Politico reported many have been tasked with finding their own protective gear.
"FSIS has continued to maintain inspection of all meat, poultry and egg products to ensure Americans continue to have a safe food supply during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesperson said.
Plants shutter, companies work to address concerns
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a Smithfield Foods plant is the center of one of the top COVID-19 hot spots in the country, according to the New York Times. Nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases and two deaths are linked to the factory.
About three weeks after its first reported case, Smithfield Foods decided to close the facility, which accounts for 5% of U.S. pork production.
On Thursday, the CDC issued a report revealing the company offered a “responsibility bonus” of $500 to employees who did not miss time from April 1 to May 1, and sent employees home with informational packets in English, when workers in the facility speak 40 different languages. It then issued more than 100 recommendations as the facility works to reopen following the outbreak, including staggering shifts and physical spacing.
"As a Smithfield Family, we ache at the devastation wrought by COVID-19," the company told Food Dive in an email.
Smithfield isn’t alone. Some of the largest meat companies in the country, including JBS, Tyson and Cargill, have temporarily or indefinitely closed plants as positive coronavirus cases jump and criticism escalates.
Tyson Fresh Meats, the beef and pork subsidiary of Tyson Foods, indefinitely suspended operations at its Waterloo, Iowa pork plant last week after calls from local officials. The company also closed and since reopened a pork plant with 1,400 workers in Columbus Junction, Iowa where about 200 coronavirus cases — including two that were fatal — are thought to have stemmed.
Since March, Gonzalez said Tyson is protecting workers by taking their temperatures, using infrared scanners, requiring protective face coverings and deep cleaning facilities. It also implemented social distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers and providing more break room space. The company also relaxed its attendance policy to encourage workers to stay home when sick.
“We realize everyone is anxious during this challenging time and believe information is the best tool for combating the virus,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why we’re encouraging our team members to share their concerns with us, so we can help address them.”
At Sanderson Farms’ plants, instead of TVs broadcasting messages about the next company picnic or safety procedures, the screens are now all coronavirus all the time with information and reminders like to wear protective gear and wash hands.
Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer and chief legal officer at Sanderson Farms, told Food Dive it formed a corporate level coronavirus response team in late February and meets twice a day. The executives consult with an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist almost daily who have helped draft the company’s response measures.
Cockrell said the company has increased cleaning and required masks, goggles and face shields, social distancing behind plexiglass dividers in the break room and temperature checks every time they walk in the building. He said it might be smart to keep these measures in place until there is a vaccine.
But the biggest challenge has been communicating those precautions to workers to make sure they're comfortable coming in, Cockrell said.
"We told our employees that first day, when we get a positive in the plant, we're going to tell you, and we're going to tell you what steps we're going to take to try to protect you and your family. If you have an issue, we want you to call us," he said.
In a preventative measure this month, Sanderson Farms cut chicken processing in Georgia after it told more than 400 healthy workers at its Moultrie 1,500-person plant to stay home with pay for two weeks. The employees that were sent home lived in Dougherty County, which saw a spike in coronavirus cases, Cockrell said.
After sending workers home, the poultry giant said it would reduce output from 1.3 million to 1 million birds a week in the Moultrie plant. Sanderson Farms has 12 processing plants around the country and all other plants are operating normally.
Although Sanderson Farms has reported positive cases, there are no reports of deaths at its plants so far.
Sanderson has a crisis management plan in place and deals with a hurricane about every three or four years that disrupts business, but he said this doesn’t compare.
"This particular pandemic is unprecedented," Cockrell said. "If I said that we have taken steps to plan for it, I would be wrong."
Cargill closed a U.S. meat plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania indefinitely earlier this month after more than 130 workers tested positive. The facility produces ground beef, steaks, beef and pork products for retail customers and the stoppage could disrupt supply.
A Cargill spokesperson told Food Dive in an email that their services have been deemed essential, but the company will only operate facilities if they can do it safely. Cargill is working closely with local health officials to ensure appropriate prevention, testing, cleaning and quarantine protocols within facilities, it said.
Cargill also implemented a temporary employee wage increase of $2 an hour pay increase and bonus incentive program for facility employees, which have become common among other manufacturers. JBS and Hormel employees, for example, are eligible for a one-time $500 bonus.
'It's too late:' What went wrong and what now
Missteps early in the outbreak and eventual deaths served as the push companies needed to close plants and do more, analysts say.
For weeks, workers at a JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado accused the company of insufficiently promoting social distancing and hygiene. It eventually led to an investigation on site safety by the local health department.
In a searing letter to JBS, UFCW Local 7 Union President Kim Cordova demanded the plant be shut down, calling it an "intolerable situation."
"No employee should be forced to work in circumstances which clearly jeopardize their health or even their lives," Cordova wrote. "We have consistently asked JBS to take appropriate measures consistent with the Center[s] for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines over the past several weeks, to little or no avail, until just very recently."
JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson told Food Dive in an email that the U.S. government has identified the food supply as a critical infrastructure industry and said companies have a responsibility to maintain normal work schedules.
"We take this responsibility seriously and are doing our best to safely provide food to the nation during a challenging time. We will endeavor to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate," Richardson said.
She said JBS has added temperature checks, hand-held thermometers and thermal imaging technology, and requires face masks to be worn at all times, in addition to coordinating with health officials and following CDC guidance.
"Now they have everything. Now they're spacing them. Now they're putting pictures everywhere. But it's too late. I mean, it's not too late for those employees, but it's too late for my dad."
Beatriz Sanchez Rangel
Daughter of Saul Sanchez who died of coronavirus at a JBS plant
With more protocols in place and more plants shutting down, victim families feel cheated.
"Now they have everything. Now they're spacing them. Now they're putting pictures everywhere. But it's too late," Beatriz Sanchez Rangel, who lost her father Saul Sanchez to the outbreak in the Greeley JBS plant, told PBS. "I mean, it's not too late for those employees, but it's too late for my dad."
Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council of the RWDSU, which represents 10,000 workers across the southeastern U.S., said in a statement that what happened in Camilla, Georgia at the Tyson plant where several died is a clear example of how not to do things.
“We are heartbroken. Generation after generation of our members are hidden from public view in small town America's poultry plants,” he said. “It’s too little too late here. I hope sharing our story will help stop other communities from being exploited by corporate America.”
When Annie Grant first realized she had the virus, Martin said his mother informed the family in a group chat. At first he thought everything would be fine if she took the proper precautions doctors outlined, but then he realized it wasn’t that easy. He said she talked to him on the phone up until the point that she couldn’t talk when on a ventilator.
"Then you look back and see this possibly all could have been prevented if the job would have took the initiative to do something when they first found out they had employees with the virus," Martin said.
How did this happen? Debra Bachar, president of Blueberry Business Group, which consults for CEOs in the food industry, told Food Dive that when it became evident this outbreak was going to hit the industry, many companies immediately went into supply chain discussions to secure the inflow of their ingredients and then many also immediately conserved cash.
"That was premature," she said. "Because what they have to do now is they have to start investing in not only employee physical safety, whether or not they physically become ill or worse in the workforce, but the mental and the emotional care of their employees as their work conditions changed. Some employees are coming to work wondering if this is the place, the day, the time, the person that is going to make them ill. And some of this is actually going into extremes: Is this a death sentence to show up for work every day?"
Bachar recommends companies set up a hotline so employees can have a one-on-one Q&A or counseling for their fears. She also suggests rethinking cost models to put more money into plant precautions and resources, including legal, a nurse and a psychologist on call. It's only a matter of time before the lawyers start calling, she added.
"All three areas — physical, legal liability and mental and emotional care — are the investments that we recommend and that some industries are doing in order to care for employees through this," she said.
Some workers already filed a federal lawsuit on April 23 against a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri.
"Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die — all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic," the lawsuit said.
She said it's up to the CEO to decide whether a facility will need to shut down and they shouldn’t be dependent on politicians or local government telling them what to do.
"Ultimately, it's that very top of the organization and its governance body to decide whether the risk of remaining open is greater than the liability," she said.
How this impacts supply
Industry analysts and companies said these closures can strain supply of certain products at a time when retail demand is up, impacting consumers and devastating farmers.
Christine McCracken, senior protein analyst with Rabobank, told Food Dive that in the short term there is likely to be some regional supply disruption as plants close, but the U.S. is not at risk of running out of meat and poultry. The industry also has historically high levels of meat in cold storage that can be used to fill this gap, she said.
"An extended period of reduced meat processing capacity will put a severe financial strain on the suppliers, livestock producers," she said. "That could mean a slightly smaller animal supply and less meat available going forward."
Andrew Novakovic, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University, told Food Dive there are all kinds of meats, like poultry, pork and beef, with different processing environments. So although there may be an impact on some meat products with these closures, there will be other proteins available to balance that out.
"All together, I think people are going to find food, but they may find disruptions in a particular sub-sector that says this is no longer available, but there's going to be something else that is," Novakovic said.
But companies have issued more dire warnings in recent days as more plants shutdown.
Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield, said in a statement after the shutdown of its largest pork facility that closing these plants "is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."
"It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," Sullivan said. "These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation's livestock farmers."
As plants close, pork farmers have nowhere to send their animals, which is causing a financial crisis in the industry with an estimated $5 billion in losses in 2020. Jim Monroe, a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council, told Food Dive that pork producers, hog farmers and plants have been dealing with a labor shortage for some time now and the coronavirus outbreak exasperated that problem.
"We were already facing plant capacity constraints," Monroe said. "Now you have plants closing and rising worker absenteeism, it has obviously put a huge strain on plant capacity and there was already a strain on plant capacity," Monroe said.
Tyson broadcast the problem in a hard-to-miss full-page ad in the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday. John Tyson, Tyson chairman, wrote that until facilities can be reopened, it will have a limited supply of its products available in grocery stores.
He said, "the food supply chain is breaking."