Legal Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants


This article was co-authored by Z. Zane McNeill and Riley Valentine.

“Meat work has long been a life and death issue. But COVID-19 takes it to another level. Backed by federal orders, the meat industry is forcing people to work without any protection from the devil virus that is killing us,” explains the Southern Workers Assembly in a pamphlet on COVID-19’s impact on meatpackers. In a time when meatpacking workers are facing intensified health risks under the guise of being essential workers, Black, Brown and Indigenous People of Color (BBIPOC) are facing the brunt of the dangers.

During this pandemic, meatpacker workers are dying disproportionately because of the lack of safety measures at companies like Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods. These companies have failed to provide 6 foot minimum distancing and workers have been discouraged from taking time off. The cold in meatpacking plants makes COVID-19 easier to spread, which further endangers workers. Meatpacking plants have been reluctant to provide accurate numbers of COVID-19 infections, leading to varying reports on infections. In a statement released in May, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that nearly 5,000 meatpacking plant workers have been infected; however, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting estimated that there have been 33,500 positive COVID-19 cases connected to meatpacking plants and over 130 workers have died from the disease. 

 Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make up a large portion of the labor force in meatpacking industries. Immigrants represent over 50% of the nearly 470,000 workers in meatpacking factories. Furthermore, as of 2018 they made up 73% of hand packers and packagers, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This population is at particular risk of COVID-19 due to restricted access to healthcare and safety-net provisions, which are generally restricted to citizens. Though COVID-19 has intensified the public health risks these workers face, this lack of protections is part of a pattern of disregard towards these marginalized folks. This has led Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, to declare that slaughterhouses aren’t just killing animals, they’re also endangering the lives of workers for profit. 

Workers and advocacy groups are responding to this crisis by fighting for greater protections during COVID-19 and utilizing legal complaints and boycotts to create positive change. This has led to a Title VI Complaint, brought by a coalition of worker advocacy groups represented by Public Justice. The complaint alleges that the racial disparities between the protections afforded to BBIPOC workers and white managers is illegal under the Civil Rights Act, because BBIPOC have been disproportionately effected by COVID-19 in the plants. Even as their co-workers, friends, and families get sick, these meatpacking workers have been pressured to continue to work. The complaint alleges that this illustrates a “pattern or practice of discrimination,” which is compounded by existing social inequalities that lead to higher hospitalizations and death rates for BBIPOC workers. Public Justice attorneys representing the Food Chain Workers Alliance in the Title VI Complaint have demanded that Tyson be cut off from federal funds, including the Farm Bill. As a result of the discrimination alleged by Public Justice, Tyson could be reprimanded for its lack of COVID-19 precautions and face an inquiry from the Department of Justice 

Despite the dangers being faced by meatpacking workers, Tyson has advertised that its employees are “safer than ever.” This claim has been challenged by consumer advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, and poultry worker rights organization, Venceremos, who allege that workers are not in fact ‘safer than ever,’ but, in actuality, face greater threats to their health. While plants contend that they have improved social distancing practices and other safety measures, workers report that when tested for the virus they are expected to continue working.

In Texas, Fadumo Osman, a Somali refugee employed by Tyson, in an interview with the San-Antonio Express New, stated that she tested positive on April 22. She stayed home until May 7 and was then required to go to back. A few days later she was tested again, and continued to work while awaiting results – she was positive for COVID-19. In response to experiences such as Osman’s these groups have submitted a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Tyson’s statement is adamantly false and is misleading consumers. These groups, represented by the Richman Law Group, contend that these safety claims are deceptive and should be investigated and enjoined by the FTC. Tyson advertising that its workers are ‘safe,’ despite ample evidence illustrating that that is blatantly false, is an example of Big Ag companies endangering their most marginalized workers in a quest for profit.

The outpouring of litigation against companies like Tyson illustrates the necessity for the industry to reckon with its cruel practices, which have led to the deaths of over a hundred people and millions of farmed animals. Multiple families have brought wrongful death suits against Tyson alleging that gross negligence from the company during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the deaths of workers and their families. Despite these complaints, Tyson has positioned itself as a critically needed service during the pandemic. In one lawsuit brought by the family of the deceased Jose Angel Chavez, Tyson cited President Trump’s April executive order, which delegated meatpacking companies as essential businesses in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Trump, when giving an overview of the essential order, did not mention whether or not meatpacking plants would need to regularly test employees, or what guidelines they would use. Instead, the Secretary of Agriculture determines the “proper nationwide priorities” and allocation of resources to maintain meat production. Both Tyson’s argument, as well as President Trump’s order, illustrates that not only are BBIPOC are seen as expandable, but that the industry is protected from the ramifications of their actions by the federal government. This racism and prioritization of industry is endemic to the meatpacking industry, but also reflects how structures of white supremacy literally value a hamburger over the life of a BBIPOC. 

Corporations like Tyson have historically harmed marginalized communities; COVID-19 has brought this indifference towards its workers to the forefront. With the ever-increasing coalitions between food, animal, and worker advocacy groups targeting the intersections of public health, speciesism, and white supremacy, structural change becomes possible. The death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise and more BBIPOC meatpacking workers die every day. Social justice movements do not exist in silos—the structures that sustain systematic violence against animals build upon structures of oppression that marginalized BBIPOC. COVID-19 had made these interlocking marginalizations more evident than ever, and advocacy groups are building a movement that directly targets and dismantles these structures at their core.  

Riley Valentine is a Ph.D. Candidate at Louisiana State University in Political Science. Their research focuses on neoliberalism, language, and care ethics. They have published work on using Wittgenstein to broaden political discourse. They obtained their B.A. in Political Science from Agnes Scott College. 

Featured image: workers cut chicken in a meat processing plant. Image credit Antone Royster, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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