Some meatpacking plants aren’t doing enough to protect their workers’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers and union leaders say.


The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in food and retail, hosted a news conference that highlighted concerns for workers during the coronavirus pandemic. UFCW outlined how to keep meatpacking workers safe.


Thirteen UFCW-member meatpacking and food processing employees have died as of April 22 because of COVID-19. More than 5,000 were exposed or tested positive for the coronavirus. Thirteen plants have closed.


The union represents 80% of all beef and pork production workers and 33% of poultry production workers in the U.S.


Kansas’ largest meatpacking plants are Cargill, National Beef, Tyson and Smithfield Foods. According to Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2, the union represents about 9,000 meatpacking workers at Cargill, National Beef and Smithfield. Rosas represents workers in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.


Itzel Goytia has worked at Cargill in Dodge City for one year. She said more safety precautions need to be taken.


“I believe the precautions came a bit late,” Goytia said. “We put our health and our family’s health at risk every day.”


Although Ford County had recorded 288 positive cases of the coronavirus as of April 23, according to Mark Lauritsen, vice president for meatpacking at UFCW, only 15 or 16 workers at the Cargill plant have the coronavirus.


“We got notified (of someone getting the coronavirus) I think it was about two weeks ago,” Goytia said. “They spoke in English and Spanish.”


UFCW sent letters to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture recommending five essential practices that must be followed to keep meatpacking workers safe. The demands include prioritizing testing for essential workers at meatpacking plants and making sure each worker is given personal protective equipment. The letters also stressed companies immediately slow their lines down. As the workers have more protective gear to wear, this speed becomes more dangerous.


Rhonda Trevino, who works at Cargill in Texas, said her plant processes about 5,200 cattle each day.


“This is a job with a lot of fast-paced work,” Trevino said. “It is very hard work.”


She said her plant acted quickly with safety precautions.


“What is happening at our plant must happen at other plants across the country,” Trevino said.


But, according to workers and union officials, other plants need to do more.


The union said distancing of 6 feet must be enforced at all companies. But some workers say this distancing is not possible because of the way the line is configured.


When distancing is not possible, UFCW recommends placing Plexiglas barriers between work stations. The union also wants immediate action taken to identify and isolate workers who test positive or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. The union says these workers must be allowed to quarantine at home, with pay, per CDC recommendations.


Achut Deng, who works at Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, developed COVID-19. She was immediately sent home.


“America’s food processing and meatpacking workers are in extreme danger, and our nation’s food supply faces a direct threat from the coronavirus outbreak,” said international union president Marc Perrone. “If workers in these plants are as essential as our elected leaders say, then it’s about time that our elected leaders provide them with the essential protections they need.


“Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus — more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy. Every time a plant closes it has a direct impact on our food supply. If we’re actually going to get ahead of this, we’re going to have to get ahead through testing.”