Meatpacking Workers Say Attendance Policies Force Them to Work With Covid-19 Symptoms

As the pandemic rages, punitive attendance policies at corporate meat plants coerce sick workers into showing up, according to activists, experts and the workers themselves.

Heather Schlitz

Photo courtesy of Smithfield Foods

This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and is part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive report­ing ini­tia­tive between the Mid­west Cen­ter and USA TODAY Net­work. It was sup­port­ed by the Pulitzer Cen­ter on Cri­sis Reporting.

In April, despite his fever, a meat­pack­ing work­er con­tin­ued to carve neck bones out of pig car­cass­es at a JBS plant in Iowa.

Two weeks lat­er, he would test pos­i­tive for COVID-19. But in the mean­time, he said, he kept clock­ing in because of a puni­tive atten­dance sys­tem wide­ly used in meat­pack­ing plants: the point system.

Under the pol­i­cy, work­ers usu­al­ly receive a point or points for miss­ing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.

For a few months ear­li­er this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods sus­pend­ed its point sys­tem, and Smith­field Foods said it has halt­ed its ver­sion for the time being.

How­ev­er, the point sys­tem has endured at Tyson and JBS plants through­out the pan­dem­ic, and it has con­tin­ued to coerce peo­ple with poten­tial Covid-19 symp­toms into show­ing up to work, said plant employ­ees, their fam­i­ly mem­bers, activists and researchers.

“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working. If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Peo­ple are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfre­do, a machine oper­a­tor in a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, said through an inter­preter. He asked to be iden­ti­fied only by his first name out of fear of retribution. 

If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep work­ing,” he con­tin­ued. If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Spokes­peo­ple for the country’s two biggest meat pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies said employ­ees are encour­aged to stay home while ill.

Our cur­rent atten­dance pol­i­cy encour­ages our peo­ple to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symp­toms of Covid-19 or have test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mick­el­son said. 

Regard­less of our atten­dance pol­i­cy, at no point dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have we assessed atten­dance points against team mem­bers for absences due to doc­u­ment­ed ill­ness,” JBS spokes­woman Nik­ki Richard­son said.

Still, the point sys­tem has like­ly con­tributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oli­va, co-founder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a non-prof­it that orga­nizes food indus­try workers.

It’s prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter prop­a­ga­tors for the coro­n­avirus that we’ve seen,” he said. It’s absolute­ly dis­as­trous to have a point sys­tem in the midst of a pandemic.”

Work­ers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home with­out penal­ty is if they test pos­i­tive for the dis­ease. They are required to go to work if they’re wait­ing for test results, they said. 

Once he test­ed pos­i­tive, the Iowa work­er, 50, was allowed to miss work with­out rack­ing up points, he said. He request­ed anonymi­ty because he fears los­ing his job.

Com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is that many work­ers strug­gle to access test­ing or avoid Covid-19 tests due to the cost, wait times and fear of being tar­get­ed by immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, work­ers and advo­cates said.

The point sys­tem varies from plant to plant.

At the JBS plant in Gree­ley, Colo., where about 300 work­ers have con­tract­ed the virus, employ­ees can rack up six points before they’re fired, accord­ing to a doc­u­ment shared by the local chap­ter of the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers union. 

At a JBS plant in Mar­shall­town, Iowa, it’s sev­en points, and at a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, where hun­dreds of work­ers have fall­en ill, it’s 14 points, accord­ing to screen­shots and pho­tos shared by meat­pack­ing work­ers in those plants. 

At the Tyson plant, the company’s gen­er­al atten­dance pol­i­cy notes that approval of pre­arranged absences is based upon the busi­ness needs of the Com­pa­ny.” Even if work­ers give the plant prop­er noti­fi­ca­tion that they’ll miss a day, they receive a point, accord­ing to a copy of the atten­dance pol­i­cy.

Mick­el­son said the doc­u­ment did not accu­rate­ly reflect the company’s atten­dance pol­i­cy dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, as work­ers have been encour­aged to remain home if they’re sick. 

The point system’s enforce­ment can also depend on the super­vi­sor. They can bend the rules for employ­ees with whom they have a good rela­tion­ship, work­ers said.

While requir­ing employ­ees to wear masks and installing plas­tic bar­ri­ers between work­ers can reduce the trans­mis­sion of the virus, the dis­ease will keep spread­ing if plants don’t iso­late and quar­an­tine sick work­ers, said Shelly Schwed­helm, exec­u­tive direc­tor of emer­gency man­age­ment and bio­pre­pared­ness at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Med­ical Center.

To curb the virus’s spread, get rid of the point sys­tem and don’t deter peo­ple from call­ing in ill,” she said.

After the Iowa meat­pack­ing work­er test­ed pos­i­tive, he stayed home for two weeks before return­ing to the plant. 

Dur­ing the day, he did jump­ing jacks in his base­ment in hopes of strength­en­ing his body enough to fight the virus and recit­ed gasp­ing prayers over the phone with his pas­tor. At night, he walked alone through his desert­ed neigh­bor­hood, wor­ried he wouldn’t wake up again if he fell asleep.

He said the com­pa­ny is mak­ing us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life. They care more about the damn hogs than they do about people.”

New sys­tem for the pandemic

Before the pan­dem­ic, the JBS plant in Gree­ley allowed 7.5 points before a fir­ing. Now, it’s six, said Kim Cor­do­va, pres­i­dent of UFCW Local 7, the union that rep­re­sents the plant’s 3,000 workers.

The atten­dance pol­i­cy became even more restric­tive,” she said.

Six work­ers died at the plant, mak­ing it one of the dead­liest pub­licly report­ed meat­pack­ing plant out­breaks in the coun­try, accord­ing to Mid­west Cen­ter track­ing.

Sick employ­ees can only recoup points at the Gree­ley plant if they have a doctor’s note and if they call into an Eng­lish-only atten­dance hot­line, a prob­lem for a work­force that speaks more than 38 lan­guages, Cor­do­va said.

To remove points from their record, work­ers must sub­mit to the union screen­shots of their call his­to­ry to the hot­line. Many work­ers find it to be a con­vo­lut­ed process, Cor­do­va said.

They’ll give the point, and then the work­er has to fight to have it removed,” she said. They make it real­ly dif­fi­cult to call in while sick, so work­ers are com­pelled to come into work even if they’re symptomatic.”

Richard­son, JBS’s spokes­woman, said their new point sys­tem is more for­giv­ing now because it allows work­ers to miss mul­ti­ple days in a row. The com­pa­ny reset all its employ­ees’ points to zero in late July, she said.

Tyson tem­porar­i­ly relaxed its point sys­tem in March but brought it back in June, even as case counts swelled.

"[The company is] making us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life."

The tim­ing of Tyson’s deci­sion was no coin­ci­dence, said Don Stull, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas who has researched meat­pack­ing for 35 years.

As that ini­tial atten­tion being focused on the indus­try began to wane, they start­ed try­ing to run as near to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els as they could. So they need­ed as many work­ers as they could get,” he said.

Mick­el­son, Tyson’s spokesman, said Stull’s claim was not true.

Few oth­er opportunities 

Large meat­pack­ing plants are often in rur­al areas with­out many jobs oppor­tu­ni­ties. That leaves work­ers in a bind when deal­ing with the point sys­tem, work­ers and advo­cates said.

Eric Lopez, a sales man­ag­er at U.S. Cel­lu­lar, said his moth­er works at the JBS plant in Mar­shall­town. A Mex­i­can immi­grant with no for­mal edu­ca­tion who doesn’t speak Eng­lish, she had few jobs avail­able to her in Mar­shall­town oth­er than the pork plant, he said. 

She knows peo­ple with symp­toms have con­tin­ued show­ing up to work, he said, and it’s caused her to break down after com­ing home from work because she fears catch­ing the virus.

For decades, the meat­pack­ing indus­try has relied on immi­grant, minor­i­ty and poor work­ers, a demo­graph­ic that activists and researchers said the pri­mar­i­ly white meat­pack­ing exec­u­tives have exploited. 

Com­pa­nies are run by old, white guys who think of work­ers as a piece of machin­ery,” said Joe Hen­ry, the polit­i­cal direc­tor for the League of Unit­ed Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens of Iowa, a His­pan­ic civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. They see them as peo­ple with dif­fer­ent skin col­ors and dif­fer­ent lan­guages that they can just go ahead and treat like animals.” 

Tyson and JBS strong­ly denied this characterization.

That is com­plete­ly untrue,” said JBS’s Richard­son, whose response echoed Tyson’s. We have done every­thing pos­si­ble to both pro­tect and sup­port our team mem­bers dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.”

The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing is a non­prof­it, online news­room offer­ing inves­tiga­tive and enter­prise cov­er­age of agribusi­ness, Big Ag and relat­ed issues through data analy­sis, visualizations,in-depth reports and inter­ac­tive web tools. Vis­it us inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org

Heather Schlitz is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign where she stud­ies jour­nal­ism, glob­al stud­ies and East Asian lan­guages and cul­tures. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Heather report­ed on cli­mate change and the envi­ron­ment as a Dow Jones Data Jour­nal­ism intern at AccuWeath­er and has spent three years writ­ing about sci­ence news for the stu­dent news­pa­per and the Uni­ver­si­ty News Bureau.

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