Jose Tovar believes he can pinpoint the day he got Covid-19: it was 8 April 2020 and he was cutting chuck bone at a meatpacking plant in Cactus, a little town in the Texas panhandle.
Cactus might be a small place, but if you regularly eat beef in the US, at one time or another, it very likely came from the JBS meatpacking plant here, where Tovar was one of its 3,000 workers.
The day he caught Covid, Tovar remembers that the man working next to him on the line was visibly ill. Just two days later Tovar, an immigrant from the northern Mexican border state of Coahuila, was short of breath and had a fever.
Company management refused to share the health status of his coworker, Tovar recalls, and he was told it was up to him if he tested for Covid-19. He tested positive the next day, and went into quarantine.
At one point in the initial weeks of the crisis, supervisors at the Cactus facility instructed workers to use hairnets, rather than masks, to cover their nose and mouth, according to Tovar. “It was absolutely ridiculous,” said Tovar.
At the time, it didn’t occur to him that he would have to fight so hard to prove that he caught Covid at work, or that in the coming weeks hundreds of his co-workers, and their families would be infected. Or that meat plant workers would be hit so hard by the pandemic that representatives would liken their experience to that of a “disposable” workforce.
The human costs are still being fully comprehended. Last month a House subcommittee report found that workers at the leading US meatpacking plants experienced cases and deaths that were up to three times previous estimates. For Tovar and many other workers the early response by the big firms was key, and indicative of longterm, systemic concerns about safety.
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in mid March last year, and Texas’s governor classified its spread across the state as a disaster. Yet, for nearly a month, JBS did not do enough to protect its employees at the Cactus facility, many of them low paid refugees or migrants, according to interviews with workers, union leaders and experts.
“You just have to look at the conditions in plants to understand the way that folks were crowded without masks was an epicenter of transmission,” said Melissa Perry, chair of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University. Perry was an expert for Tovar in a lawsuit he later filed for compensation benefits from the insurer after missing work for weeks due to Covid.
Worker representatives recalled that when some people brought masks from home, human resources ordered them removed. “JBS was concerned that people were going to get scared or excited [about mask use],” said Celestino Rivera, the United Food and Commercial Workers union representative for the Cactus plant.
Asked about its response to the outbreak, JBS said it “aggressively” prioritized health and safety through a range of steps to keep the virus out of its facilities as early as February 2020. It said that to instruct workers to wear hairnets as opposed to masks would have been a violation of company policy.
In mid-April, the company began to install plastic dividers between workers, hand out masks and check temperatures at the entrance of the building. Employees 65 years and older were kept from the plant and anyone experiencing Covid symptoms was advised to quarantine at home.
Still, there was immense pressure felt by employees to keep working as staffing shortages raised the specter of a temporary shutdown. The company even resorted to cash and steak incentives to keep workers on the line. By the end of the month, the Trump administration had stepped in to declare meat processing plants “critical infrastructure”. “We felt there were instances where supervisors, because they were short handed, were trying to convince individuals to continue working,” Rivera said.
State health investigators in late April were tracking at least 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, the Texas Tribune reported at the time.
When Tovar returned to work in May, he said that in banners and other communications there was a big focus on the “essential workers” message. “They kept telling us we were essential so that we wouldn’t complain,” Tovar said. “It felt wrong.” Tovar said the processor was getting by with a depleted workforce, which made the pace of production daunting. Frustrated, some of his co-workers passed around the number of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that provides pro-bono legal services to low-income people across Texas. “I wasn’t looking for money, and I didn’t care if (JBS) fired me,” Tovar said. “I wanted to fight for justice.”
There were 914 Covid-19 cases associated with that JBS plant by the end of June 2020, Texas Health and Human Services told the Guardian in an email.
Cactus is probably best known for a Waylon Jennings song, named after the town, an immigration raid that hit the meatpacker in 2006, and a tornado that ripped through town the following year. These days, the streets of Cactus are populated by refugees and migrants. The Guardian spoke to more than 30 workers in the town; many had stories about how tough life could be working in the plant, even before the pandemic. Some described injuries, including one man who showed the Guardian his hand where one of his fingers had been amputated in an accident at the plant.
Considering the blood-drenched environment of a slaughterhouse it should come as little surprise that the industry relies heavily upon, and the government is complicit in providing, foreign born workers to fill jobs that most American citizens won’t do. Though traumatic injuries from ultrasharp knives and bone-crushing machines are common, the gradual wear and tear of the job can also break a body. Existing protections simply do not account for the physical toll of disassembling thousands of animals into their saleable parts for a living. Ultimately it took the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic to fully expose the vulnerability of the nation’s meat processing workers.
From the start of the pandemic until September nearly 60,000 slaughterhouse workers at the major firms have contracted the coronavirus, and at least 298 of them have died. An exact accounting of the virus’s toll may never be known, in part, because of what has been described as weak oversight and a hands-off approach to workplace inspections that were features of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement under the Trump administration.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden cast himself as a champion of the working man, calling attention to the plight of workers in the meatpacking and processing industry. As president, Biden directed Osha to issue new emergency temporary standards to protect workers from the spread of the coronavirus. He also paused a controversial Trump-era proposal that would have allowed some meat processors to increase line speeds beyond regulatory limits. Both steps were widely praised by worker advocates, among them Debbie Berkowitz, a former Osha chief of staff, now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. But after several months in office, the momentum toward deeper reforms has stalled, Berkowitz said. “The meat industry has not been held accountable for their failure to adequately protect workers,” Berkowitz said, “a true travesty.”
In a statement, Osha said it was committed to worker safety and added that, as Biden had ordered, it was “continuing to review” its response to Covid.
Worker advocates and safety experts say the administration has barely scratched the surface of problems baked into the industry’s DNA. “The pandemic opened a window to the working conditions inside these plants,” said Celeste Monfronton, workplace safety expert, “but the attention has not really extended to the underlying causes.” Large multinational companies dominate the $227bn market and before the pandemic about eight workers died annually, while coronavirus has claimed at least 30 times that number.
Industry critics say foreign workers are particularly susceptible to exploitation, and the US refugee resettlement system funnels refugees to slaughterhouse jobs. Nearly 40% of the US meat industry workforce is foreign born and in Texas the number is closer to 56%.
“Our government has partnered with the meat industry to bring refugees so that they have a workforce that is vulnerable and scared,” Berkowitz said. “And they get away with it because the industry is hidden from public view.” Advocates say the Biden administration has shown no indication that it will take on the social conditions and policy environments that endanger the lives of workers, such as requiring that the industry engage in health and safety research.
Attention has turned, for now, to the congressional panel investigation into how the nation’s largest meatpacking companies handled the pandemic. The investigation, opened in February by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, said not only had JBS USA, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, they had “shown a callous disregard for workers’ health”. In September the committee’s chair, Jim Clyburn, added Cargill and National Beef Packing Company (National Beef) to its investigation.
With barely 21,000 residents spread over 900 sq miles of windswept plains, the people of Moore county, where Cactus is located, have cultivated a sort of frontier mentality. Perhaps that partly explains why county officials speak so supportively about its largest employer: JBS. Tommy Brooks, the county’s emergency coordinator, bristled at the suggestion the company, or county officials, should have acted sooner to protect workers. “This is a very reputable company,” Brooks said. “(JBS) did what they needed to do to make sure their people stayed as safe as they possibly could while still providing food to the American people.”
The company claims to have adopted measures beyond federal guidance and industry standards, including ordering face masks in March, and requiring their use in April. Moreover, the company said workers who tested positive for Covid received up to 26 weeks of pay at the short-term disability pay rate of between 60% to 70% of their base pay. And Covid related healthcare costs were covered in full, while the families of workers who died from the virus received compensation equal to at least one year’s salary, according to JBS. “We strongly disagree with any claim that suggests we have not prioritized the safety of our workforce at all times throughout the pandemic,” JBS said in a statement.
When the Department of State Health Service initially offered assistance, the company refused, and as far as Brooks and county Judge Rowdy Rhoades could see, there was no reason to doubt the company’s decision.
With at least 3,476 sick and 85 dead, Rhoades acknowledged the devastation caused by the coronavirus in his county. He added that Covid restrictions that shuttered businesses was tragic in its own right. “This sounds stupid for me to say, but we’re God’s country,” Rhoades said of how the county endured the pandemic. “God takes care of us.”
Tovar missed three weeks of work with Covid and had a fight to get fully compensated from a state workers compensation insurance scheme. Since passage of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act in 1989, it has become exceedingly difficult for workers to sue over injuries or illnesses that occurred at work. Texas businesses are not required to subscribe to the workers’ compensation program, but the ones that do cannot be sued for negligence. “The system is anti-worker, anti-safety and designed to benefit big business,” said John Gibson, a Lubbock-based workers’ compensation lawyer.
With few legal options, Tovar filed suit in May of 2020 against American Zurich Insurance Company, a participant in a Texas’s workers’ compensation insurance program, which had denied him temporary income benefits for missed work. His claim was rejected by the insurance company, so Chris Benoit, Tovar’s attorney, took his case to the Texas department of insurance’s division of workers’ compensation.
Benoit had to prove that Tovar contracted the virus at work, something that very few workers’ compensation cases involving respiratory diseases have found. His expert witness was Melissa Perry, the epidemiologist from George Washington University. In the two weeks prior to his infection, Perry told the Guardian that JBS did virtually nothing to limit the spread of the virus. She based her opinion, in part, on crowded working conditions and photos that Tovar took of the plant locker room. “Everyone was just huddled together with no masks,” Perry said.
Benoit argued that JBS did not socially distance its employees, or require masks at the time Tovar was exposed to the virus. The only reasonable epidemiological conclusion, she said, was that the virus was transmitted to Tovar inside the plant. “What was also clear from her assessment is that the one thing that they had to do to lower the risk of exposure in an outbreak like this was to reduce the line speed and space out workers,” Benoit said of Perry’s testimony. “That’s just not something they were willing to do.”
The insurer dragged out his case for a year, but, in May, it lost, and paid Tovar that $1,300 in lost benefits, in what was seen as a “rare win for workers”.
Critics say the business model of meat processors is designed to sustain the health of the industry, not its employees. Injured and sick workers are looked after by a pool of company approved doctors who, critics say, send them back to work so that production won’t suffer, and the company can avoid reporting lost workdays to Osha.
Employers were slow to protect their workers, Tovar’s expert Perry said, adding that Osha failed to enforce infection control requirements. “What can change if there’s really no data, if there’s really no information, if the companies say things are fine and Osha, which may never set foot inside the plant, accepts that on face value,” said Perry. For a change, union officials say the administration is listening to their concerns and seeking their input. By January this year just five meatpacking plants have been fined a total of $69,000 for Covid-19 violations.
Rather than strengthen worker protections, Texas lawmakers made it even harder to challenge negligent employers when it passed Senate Bill 6 this June. The law shields businesses from lawsuits that ostensibly acted in good faith during the pandemic. Plaintiffs must gather evidence, which in some cases, such as Covid exposure, is practically impossible, Benoit said. In spite of the obstacles, Benoit believes there is still reason for hope. “Mr Tovar’s case proves that insurance companies can be beat,” Benoit said.
Tovar stayed on at the JBS plant for months, right up until he was demoted from his chuck bone duties. The change came with a pay cut, from $24 to $19 an hour. “They told me I could either take the job or quit,” Tovar said. At the end of October, he quit. Within days, Tovar was working the chuck bone line at another meatpacking plant near Amarillo.
Tovar fidgeted uncomfortably on the edge of his living room couch on a late May evening. He had gone under the knife to repair a hernia only a few days prior. The injury occurred while doing the same cutting, lifting and twisting he had been doing for three decades in meatpacking houses. “The hernia tore open,” he said, and the slab of beef and knife fell from his hands at the moment. “The pain was intense,” he said.
Workers’ compensation insurance covered the cost of his hernia surgery. Just two days later, he was back at work for the 6am shift.
The meat processing industry has been desperate for workers, still reeling from pandemic related shortages, and Trump era limits on refugee arrivals, down from 110,000 to just 15,000. Some have been offering signing bonuses of up to $5,000. Amazon, meanwhile, has been building a warehouse in Amarillo, and many in the refugee communities hoped to land a job there, apparently unfazed by the stories of the tech giant’s poor treatment of its workers.
Tovar, for his part, has been trying to find meaning in his lawsuit. “I think I did the right thing,” Tovar said. “Hopefully it helps others.”