CORONAVIRUS

CDC study: Minorities far more affected in meatpacking outbreaks

Iowa, nation's largest pork producer, doesn't participate in study

Residents hold thank-you signs May 20 to greet employees of a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., as
Residents hold thank-you signs May 20 to greet employees of a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., as they return to their shifts after the plant had been closed because of a coronavirus outbreak. A new report studying the impact of the coronavirus on workers at meat processing plants has found that 87 percent of people infected were racial or ethnic minorities. (Stephen Groves/AP)

A new report studying the impact of the coronavirus on workers at meat processing plants has found that 87 percent of people infected were racial or ethnic minorities and that at least 86 workers have died.

The report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likely understates the disproportion because Iowa officials didn’t participate in the study and wouldn’t answer questions about why not.

The study examined more than 16,000 COVID-19 cases at 239 plants in 21 states. It offers perspective on how the virus devastated U.S. pork, beef and poultry processing plants — many of which were forced to close temporarily.

Iowa is the nation’s largest pork-producing state and saw severe coronavirus outbreaks at several huge plants.

Iowa officials acknowledged in May that the Tyson pork plant in Perry was the site of the worst workplace outbreak in the state, but there also were outbreaks at meat plants in Waterloo, Columbus Junction and Tama.

The CDC report found 87 percent of coronavirus cases were among racial and ethnic minorities even though they made up 61 percent of the overall worker population.

The data shows 56 percent of coronavirus illnesses involved Hispanic workers, 19 percent were non-Hispanic Blacks and 12 percent were Asians. The data showed 13 percent of the virus cases involved white workers, who made up 39 percent of the overall workforce that was studied.

“The effects of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups are not yet fully understood; however, current data indicate a disproportionate burden of illness and death among these populations,” the CDC said in the report. “Ongoing efforts to reduce incidence and better understand the effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minorities are important to ensure that workplace-specific prevention strategies and intervention messages are tailored to those groups most affected by COVID-19.”

The agency said about 9 percent of more than 112,600 meatpacking plant workers at plants in 14 states came down with the illness caused by the coronavirus. The percentage of workers with COVID-19 ranged from 3.1 percent to 24.5 percent per facility.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union International Vice President Mark Lauritsen said workers need real enforcement of the highest safety standards in meatpacking and other essential industries.

“This new CDC report makes clear what UFCW has been saying for months. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and its impact on front-line workers, especially workers of color, is continuing to increase,” he said. “American workers simply cannot survive with the current patchwork of safety measures put in place by a fraction of companies and states. Without a strong national standard, millions of workers are still unprotected and vulnerable.”

The union, which represents over 250,000 workers in meatpacking and food processing, said the CDC data is consistent with its data but likely undercounts those affected since the data comes from fewer than half the states.

The union said at least 76 worker deaths have been reported at plants it represents and 15,682 workers have been infected or exposed.

A spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group for the meat processing industry, did not immediately respond to a message. The animal slaughtering and processing industry employs an estimated 525,000 workers in about 3,500 facilities nationwide.

The CDC noted that Iowa was among the states that didn’t contribute coronavirus-related meat processing plant data, even though the state has about a dozen large-scale meat processing plants.

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The Iowa Department of Public Health did not respond to a message seeking comment on why the state didn’t provide the CDC with data.

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