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Many employees at Iowa's meatpacking plants were already in vulnerable positions. Then COVID hit

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Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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Amner Martinez runs a staffing agency in Des Moines. His family, originally from Guatemala, moved from California to Iowa in the 1990s. Most of his family has worked at the Tyson plant in Perry.

Amner Martinez still doesn't really know all the details from when his 74-year-old father Concepcion got really sick with COVID-19 near the beginning of the pandemic.

Martinez’s father works at the Tyson Foods plant in Perry, the site of an outbreak in spring 2020 that affected 730 workers.

Martinez said his father, who he called a workaholic like himself, didn’t tell him just how sick he was until he was recovering.

“He said that he was, like, on his knees, basically talking to God,” he said.

Yet, Martinez said his father and stepmother didn’t want to go to the hospital.

“Nobody knew what it was or, you know, different information was coming from different ways, so I feel like they were ashamed about it, like, we’re contagious,” he said.

The Martinez family is originally from Guatemala. They moved to Iowa from California in the 1990s to work in the Tyson Perry plant.

“In 1995, in California, my parents were making $4.25 an hour,” he said.

Martinez said the Tyson job doubled their wages and the cost of living in Iowa was much more affordable.

Most of his extended family, including himself, have worked in the Perry plant.

Martinez now operates his own staffing agency. His clients include some meatpacking companies.

“I know exactly the hard part of [the job],” he said. “And I also know the opportunity that has provided my entire family to just move out of poverty, really.”

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Credit Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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The Tyson pork plant employees more than 2,000 workers and is one of the main economic drivers of Storm Lake. It was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak that affected one-fourth of its workforce.

A shift in the industry’s workforce

Meatpacking plants are filled with hard-working immigrants like the Martinez family.

Many are first-generation immigrants coming from countries across Asia, Central America and Africa.

Thirty-eight percent of the country’s meat processing workers are foreign-born, compared to just 17 percent of all workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s a tough job. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder processing animal parts all day.

But the average hourly wage, at $15 an hour, is double that of Iowa’s minimum wage, and the job typically requires little to no English skills or education, making it attractive to some recent immigrants.

However, it’s only in the past few decades that meatpacking companies have relied on this group to do these jobs.

The workforce shift started back in the 1960s when Tama, Iowa-based Iowa Beef Packers, now Tyson Foods, transformed the whole industry, said Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University.

They unveiled a new, more efficient way of processing meat that involved faster lines and took much of the skill out of the job typically held by trained butchers at the time, by having workers make the same repetitive cut for hours.

Swenson said it upended the industry and the unions, which most of the workforce belonged to at the time, and it made the job more dangerous for frontline workers.

“Pay went down that much,” he said. “The kind of work that people were doing was repetitive, and led to injuries. The line speeds were fast.”

Gradually, the old workforce, made up of mostly U.S.-born white and Black Iowans, started quitting. Companies initially struggled to find workers to replace them.

“They found they were able to be attractive to and retain workers who were foreign born, primarily those who are refugees from Asia, and, or, people who were coming from Mexico and Central America,” Swenson said.

In Storm Lake, Willis Hamilton, a lawyer at the Hamilton Law Firm, said he saw this workforce transformation first hand.

Hamilton used to work summers at the pork plant in town as a high school and college student in the 1950s and 1960s.

The plant is operated by Tyson Foods now, but back then it was run by Hygrade.

Hamilton said the work was hard and uncomfortable.

“You work with knives and saws and other tools that could cut your fingers off. They have byproducts that are horribly stinky and not comfortable to deal with,” he said. “I remember one day, for instance, in my job, at Hygrade, I had to scoop pigs’ feet all day,” he said.

But he said he was making just over $3 an hour, which was double what other summer jobs paid at the time.

“That made a big difference just for me,” he said. “So you could imagine what it did for the family man.”

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Credit Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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Willis Hamilton works at a Storm Lake family-run law firm in existence since the 1860s. He represents a handful of workers affected by Tyson’s COVID-19 outbreak at the local pork plant.

Hamilton said he remembers when the Hygrade plant closed in the early 1980s. It sat idle for a few years, then Iowa Beef Packers, which he calls the “corporate outlaw,” took it over.

“They gradually weeded out all the old employees, replaced them with folks they brought in from various locations, and they worked them hard. They worked hard to keep the union out,” he said.

Tyson acquired the pork plant from IBP in 2002 and the turkey plant in 2014, when it merged with Hillshire Brands.

Hamilton, whose family-run law firm dates back to the 1860s, has spent decades representing workers at the town’s two Tyson plants for workers compensation claims.

He said Tyson continues to rely heavily on immigrants.

“One of the reasons I think is because they don't complain as much as the average worker,” he said. “They're just glad to have a job. They actually work very hard.”

Hamilton is representing a handful of workers and their families who have filed workers comp claims and wrongful death lawsuits from the pork plant outbreak May 2020.

“They're tough cases. They're gonna be difficult,” he said.

There’s little legal precedent to fall back on for pandemic-related worker injuries and deaths, he said.

“The law isn't quite up to speed on how to deal with it. So you got to, kind of, make your own law,” he said.

Additionally, Hamilton said a new state law that Iowa enacted in June could make his cases more difficult.

The law gives businesses, nursing homes and medical facilities more liability protections against customer and employee lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposures. In an unusual move, the legislature created the law so it applies retroactively to cover all of 2020.
 

Challenges with addressing minority health care

But the outbreaks exposed more than just legal challenges for meatpacking workers.

“It can be really challenging with this population to address their health care,” said Caroline Johnson, the clinical director for Proteus, a nonprofit that’s launching a pilot health clinic at Midwest Premier Foods in Polk County.

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Credit Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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A car sits in the parking lot of the Tyson Foods Storm Lake pork plant. The plant's workforce is made up of many immigrants.

“And unfortunately, they have so many health disparities and are at greater risk for diabetes, hypertension, and cholesterol.”

Johnson said these conditions put workers at higher risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19.

Daniel Zinnel, the CEO of Proteus, said the non-profit wanted to start working with meatpacking plant workers, even before the pandemic, because they face a number of barriers to health care.

“Some of the workers don't take the insurance because it's a huge expense out of their pocket,” he said.

“Others potentially do have access to insurance, but maybe can't get to a clinic because they're not open during hours of when they need them to be because they're working different shifts and can't get off work.”

Immigrants are significantly more likely to be uninsured, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It found 46 percent of nonelderly undocumented immigrants and 25 percent of lawfully-present immigrants were uninsured in 2019, compared to just 9 percent of U.S. citizens.

Earlier this year, Tyson Foods started a similar initiative, partnering with Marathon Health to open seven pilot health clinics in plants across the country.

Claudia Coplein, the chief medical officer for Tyson, said the company made plans to start the program before the pandemic because it found frontline workers weren’t using their health benefits and were only seeking care if it was an emergency.

“We're really trying to help them overcome these barriers, and also, at the same time, help them to detect health conditions early and promote healthier habits,” Coplein said.

But these private pilot programs only cover a small fraction of workers at plants.

Local, state and federal public health programs are typically responsible for addressing the broader population.

Public health spending as a proportion of total health spending has been decreasing in the U.S. since 2000, according to a report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.

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Credit Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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Janice Edmunds-Wells was the director of the Iowa Department of Public Health's Office of Multicultural and Minority Health for more than a decade before she was laid off due to budget cuts in 2017.

Some states, like Iowa, have cut state public health initiatives directed at minority health in recent years.

Janice Edmunds-Wells was a one-woman team running the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Office of Minority and Multicultural Health for more than a decade before she said she was abruptly fired when the state legislature cut the $106,000 department in 2017.

“I remember that day because I came into the office that morning, and I had only been on the job for maybe, like, 30 minutes,” she said. “And they called me into human resources, and they told me what had happened.”

Edmunds-Wells said her job was to strengthen awareness and connections for health care initiatives for the state’s diverse populations.

“I would have people come and say, ‘I want to do something in the community and don't know what I want to do,’” she said, “so setting up things like conferences, or educational trainings -- really working with people where they were in their communities.”

Other states, like Texas, have also quietly defunded state health programs addressing minority health in recent years.

In a statement, IDPH spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said though the office was eliminated in 2017, the department has taken steps to address minority health, such as adopting a health equity policy later that year.

This year, the department hired a health equity coordinator to bring an “equity lens” to programs at IDPH and the Department of Human Services, she said.

“We are committed to addressing health disparities in populations disproportionately impacted by health inequities. As such, we have a renewed focus on this work and have launched department-wide efforts to embed a health equity focus in all of our programs,” Ekstrand said.

Claudia Corwin, an occupational medicine specialist with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said most states’ public health departments weren’t prepared for the COVID-19 outbreaks at the plants — and still aren’t.

“Very, very few states have actual protections for vulnerable food system workers in the event of public health emergencies like the COVID pandemic and that needs to be coming to the legislative level,” she said.

‘A lot of people are upset, but no one really wants to speak out’

Some research has found minority communities, particularly those in rural meatpacking towns, were deeply affected by the pandemic.

David Peters, a sociology professor at Iowa State University, conducted a large survey on the pandemic’s impact on Iowa’s rural communities.

The survey covered 73 Iowa communities, and included the meatpacking communities of Columbus Junction, Storm Lake, West Liberty and Denison, which all have minority populations above 60 percent.

Peters said minority communities in these towns reported being affected by the pandemic in many aspects -- physically, mentally and financially.

“They suffered in particular economically by having reduced working hours wage, wage cuts, benefit losses, losing their jobs, and of course, health impacts. Much more of them were hospitalized,” he said.

But Peters said workers in rural meatpacking communities also reported being afraid to speak out over concerns about health and safety for fear of retaliation from their employer.

“A lot of people wrote something to the effect that there's big problems in this community,” Peters said. “A lot of people are upset, but no one really wants to speak out because there's consequences. No one wants to lose their job.”

At a congressional hearing in October on the conditions of meatpacking plants during the outbreaks, Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said she struggled to get workers to speak publicly about their experiences.

“I think what's happened over the last 20 years is the industry has gotten a lot more concentrated. So now you have these huge companies that have unlimited resources. But you also have sort of a very terrified workforce,” Berkowitz said.

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Credit Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio
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Signs posted on the Storm Lake Tyson pork plant advertise higher wages and sign on bonuses to attract workers as the meatpacking industry faces a frontline worker shortage.

Recently meatpacking companies, like many industries, are facing major frontline worker shortages.

Dalia Kyi, who previously worked for EMBARC, an organization that works with refugees, said some workers quit because they were scared.

But others quit due to other pandemic-related factors, like not being able to find child care.

“A lot of people also quit because of the childcare issues,” she said. “The schools are closed then the parents cannot go to work.”

This means current meatpacking workers now are pulling longer hours, which experts say could lead to higher rates of injuries.

One worker who’s Karen, an ethnic minority from Myanmar, and works at the Tyson Perry plant, said that sometimes, his department has had just half its normal staff. He asked not to be identified over concerns he might face retaliation at work.

“You have to do extra work for you know, for other people because...people are missing,” he said through his sister-in-law, who interpreted.

This shortage has driven large meat packing companies to increase wages and sign on bonuses to attract more workers.

“We're also accelerating investments in automation and advanced technologies to make existing roles safer and easier while reducing costs,” said Donnie King, the CEO and president of Tyson in a November quarterly update call with investors.

“We're confident that our actions will increase Tyson staffing levels, and position us for volume growth.”

Swenson, the ISU economist, said government officials and the meatpacking industries need to start prioritizing worker health and safety.

“The overall economy cannot get well until the workforce is well,” he said. “And the workforce right now is still not well, and to assume otherwise is silly."

Swenson said that means federal and state leaders need to take a worker-centric, not industry-centric approach in meatpacking.

Martinez said he thinks some meatpacking companies don’t always understand just how important immigrant workers are to the industry, as they’re still some of the only people willing to do the tough job.

“They need to understand that immigrants are the ones that are going to save this shortage,” he said.

This is part two of a three-part series.

This project was produced as part of the 2021 National Fellowship with USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.