Nebraska’s largest COVID-19 hotspots are meatpacking areas with deep immigrant roots. But many workers feel they can’t speak out about ongoing concerns with working conditions. Instead, the families of workers have organized, alleging many plants still aren’t socially distancing workers and don’t have enough PPE.
Nhu-Y Ngo is a lawyer in New York City, but she grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, having moved there with her family from Vietnam in the early 1990s. Her father, who does not want to be named to protect his position with Smithfield Foods, eventually took a job at the company’s plant in Crete, Nebraska.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, two-thirds of plant workers statewide are immigrants. Advocates like Ngo say immigrant communities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, and state officials have not risen to the challenge of protecting them during the crisis.
When asked what she remembers about his work, Ngo says the sound of his alarm clock comes to mind. “Sometimes I was having a bout of insomnia that evening, and I didn't fall asleep," she recalled. "But then my dad’s alarm would be going off...I would see him go out before I had even gone to bed.”
She says he still wakes up before dawn to make his shifts, and that over his twenty-seven-year long career, he’s become an institution at the plant. He mentors young employees and is close with his managers, too, bringing them gifts after rare trips to see Ngo and her siblings graduate from college.
"I don't know what that relationship is like, but obviously, it's enough for him to be like, 'Let me get him this lighter, because he likes to take smoke breaks,’" she explained. "It's also another way to be, like, 'Hey, I went to go visit my daughters and I'm proud of them,", y'know?"
But even as hundreds of cases of COVID-19 were reported at the plant, she says her dad didn’t talk about it much. That’s not new behavior. “They've just put their heads down, and that's helped them survive,” she says.
Ngo worked to give him a voice from her apartment in Brooklyn by helping the recently formed “Children of Smithfield” group organize online. In Nebraska, members like Maira Mendez have staged drive-by protests and calls with Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Most recently, Mendez spoke to dozens on the steps of the Nebraska Capitol on a hot Sunday afternoon. Family members and advocates drove in from meatpacking towns statewide to demonstrate with a socially distanced car caravan, speakers and sage burning.
“I stand as a proud daughter of two meatpacking plant workers who immigrated to this country over 30 years ago, with a single purpose...to provide the best for our family,” she told the crowd of dozens.
She added plants are a critical presence in many of Nebraska’s immigrant communities, employing thousands. And in many cases, meatpacking jobs give many first-generation Americans access to social and economic mobility.
“These meatpacking plants have made it possible for our parents to put us through college," she cautioned. "Yes, we are thankful, and don't intend to hurt these companies. But we won't allow employers and government officials to classify plant workers as essential workers without treating them as essential lives.”
Within the overall disproportionate impact on immigrant communities, advocates say those with Latino backgrounds have been hit hardest by plant outbreaks.
While the state hasn't specifically reported how much crossover exists between the two groups in its COVID-19 data, Latinos make up almost half of Nebraska’s COVID cases, and account for over 60 percent of the state’s total meatpacking workforce.
Nebraska State Senator Tony Vargas, who represents many plant workers in South Omaha, thinks the state waited too long to do accessible outreach. “This is a deeply immigrant community that is uplifting local economies and putting food on the table,” Vargas said. “It took weeks for us to get Spanish language education material in certain places, let alone at the state level.”
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has acknowledged the state's struggle to prepare resources in Spanish as quickly as they were needed. He has since integrated written materials and Spanish press conferences into the state's pandemic strategy.
More importantly, Vargas added, statewide COVID-19 safety requirements were never implemented, leaving thousands of plant workers at risk with little oversight. The state has sent biomedical preparedness experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to several plants across the state to offer feedback for management. But UNMC is not a punitive body and cannot force plants to follow their advice.
Smithfield and several other companies have issued statements highlighting their pandemic policies, claiming they meet or exceed guidance. Still, Tyson, which has 4 facilities in Nebraska, doesn’t offer fully paid sick leave, despite encouragement to expand policies from OSHA.
For Vargas, it’s personal. He is a first-generation American—his parents moved to New York City from Peru in the 1970s, and worked many jobs over the years to keep the family afloat. Vargas’ father eventually settled into a career as a machinist—a job considered essential like the workers at Smithfield.
He worked until the day he got sick with COVID-19, and recently died of the illness at 72. Work was part of his identity, Vargas said.
"He relished the American dream," Vargas reflected. "If it wasn't for the American dream, I think he would have lost will, and that's what kept him going."
He sees that story in many of Nebraska’s immigrant meatpacking families. The connection makes his grief feel bigger than himself, Vargas said—it’s a call to protect families that aren’t so different from his own from the trauma of COVID-19.
"Both of my parents in particular always reminded me that there's injustice in this world, and you have to work very, very hard...but you can't leave others behind."
He, alongside Children of Smithfield and other family groups, is calling for more testing for workers, expanded sick leave, PPE, and transparency from the state around how many cases impacted plants have. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has declined requests for data from individual businesses, but almost 3,500 workers statewide have gotten sick with 14 deaths.
The Children of Smithfield and other family members of workers say they’ll keep speaking out until working conditions improve for their parents.
Follow Christina on Twitter: @c_c_stella