As Nick Roberts and Rosa Amanda Tuirán report at The Counter, the meat packing industry — given basically unlimited liability protection from President Trump under pandemic health guidelines they wrote themselves — not only failed to protect workers from contracting COVID-19, they actually ramped up production to take advantage of the opportunity to increase sales and profits.
One plant, One World Beef, offered incentives to employees to work six days a week without missing a day for paltry bonuses of up to $100 and a box of meat.
In April, as the first wave of Covid-19 infections began to spread across the U.S., the nation’s largest hotspot wasn’t in New York City. It wasn’t in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, or any major urban center. It was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city of about 190,000.
Specifically, it was in the Smithfield Foods pork plant on the north side of town, nestled into a bend in the Big Sioux River. By April 16, 644 cases had been traced back to the plant—44 percent of all the cases in South Dakota at the time—pushing Sioux Falls to the top of the New York Times’ list of single-source hotspots. The initial outbreak only grew as the weeks and months went on. As of September, Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant had reported nearly 1,300 coronavirus cases among its employees, about one-third of the plant’s total workforce. Four of those workers died.
For a brief period, the crisis at the Sioux Falls plant was front-page news—a stark indication of the growing problem in U.S. slaughterhouses. But the nation’s attention had largely moved on by September 10, when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finally cited Smithfield for failing to protect its workers at Sioux Falls. The announcement of this corrective action was, in a sense, historic: Smithfield was the first meatpacker to be fined by OSHA for a coronavirus-related violation. Yet the fine itself—a mere $13,494—told a different story. The amount translated to less than $10.50 for every worker who contracted Covid-19 from the Sioux Falls plant.
Under the previous owners, Brawley Beef (National Beef), the plant had the capacity to slaughter between 1,600 to 2,300 cattle on a daily basis. When One World Beef took over in 2015, CEO Eric Brandt said the company’s focus was on the quality of the meat over quantity, and would run a more streamlined operation—building gradually to a 700- to –1,200-cow daily capacity over the course of several years.
One OWB worker said that on a regular five-day week before Covid-19, employees would slaughter between 800 to 1,200 cows a day. But in spite of the ongoing pandemic, production at One World Beef Packers increased in the spring. In March, April, May and June, on average 1,500 cows were slaughtered every day, six days a week according to an employee who works in fabrication, the last stage of production at the plant.
In other words, the company cranked up its output during a time when it was likely to be financially advantageous to do so. U.S. cattle slaughter rates dropped precipitously during that four-month span; at its lowest point in late April, beef processing was at 60 percent of its previous year’s capacity. At the same time, and likely as a result of plant closures, wholesale beef prices jumped markedly during the period between April and June. For packing plants that managed to stay open, processing as many cattle as possible could be highly lucrative—even if it posed serious risks to worker health.
As fears around the pandemic grew, more and more workers began staying home from work, leaving One World Beef understaffed. In an attempt to maintain the brisk rate of production, the company offered weekly bonuses throughout April. Workers who came to work Monday through Saturday without missing a day were given a bonus of $50, later raised to $100, which was accompanied by a box of meat valued at $200 to $300.
Workers were told if they were scared to enter the facility, they could refrain from coming to work, but multiple employees told us they were warned by supervisors they might be transferred to another area of the plant, be demoted, or replaced altogether if they chose not to come.