Staff Columnist

Iowa failed its vulnerable long before COVID-19

Workers build a large tent at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, April 16, 2
Workers build a large tent at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Two employees have died after a coronavirus outbreak at the pork processing plant. The plant has been shut down since April 6. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Each time the governor shares the day’s COVID-19 numbers, she makes sure the media and Iowans know how many cases involve long-term care facilities. Lately, we’ve also been told about the mounting toll at the state’s meatpacking plants.

This is, of course, news. These are the epicenters of the pandemic in Iowa, where clusters of cases are driving numbers upward.

But we also catch a subtext. Maybe those of us not living or working in nursing homes or not standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers slaughtering meat don’t have to worry quite so much.

We’re all in this together, it’s often said. Or are we, really?

We should have been far more worried about our care facilities and meatpacking workers long before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. We should have spoken up while our political leadership in Iowa shoved these people to the margins and left them exposed.

Just months ago Iowa’s long-term care ombudsman, Cynthia Pederson, was attempting to erase the jobs of local ombudsmen who visit nursing homes and other facilities and outsource the work to a third party. As Clark Kauffman of the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported in January, the effort failed because no one responded to the state’s request for proposals.

Kauffman reported that the National Ombudsman reporting System shows that Iowa ranks 50th in on-site visits to facilities. In 2018, just 10 percent of facilities were visited here, compared to a national average of 72 percent. The office’s budget for on-site visits has been slashed.

In February, a trio of bills requiring visits and providing funding died in the Republican-controlled Legislature. And this is part of a long, sad trend line of Statehouse politicians picking the needs of facility owners over their residents.

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Would any of this have stopped an outbreak? Maybe not. But it says so much about our priorities. We can afford massive tax cuts, but not nursing home checks.

Immigrants, according to A New American Economy reports, make up nearly half of all farmworkers and more than half of meat processing workers. They’re a critical component in an agricultural economy so vital to Iowa. We’re tragically learning that lesson now, as workers fall ill, plants shut down and the food supply chain buckles.

The governor is leaving the COVID-19 response largely to the massive companies who own these facilities in places such as Columbus Junction, Tama and Waterloo. “First and foremost,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said, the objective is to protect workers.

Because, after all, those plants need to be up and running.

Packing plant work is dangerous. Saws, scissors, knives and hooks are deployed against fast-moving lines of meat and poultry. Workers are subject to an array of injuries, from traumatic incidents to the cumulative body blows delivered by years on the line. For immigrant workers, especially undocumented workers, reporting safety violations is next to impossible.

As a young reporter, I stood in makeshift clinics manned by volunteers trying to address the injuries and illnesses of immigrant workers who had no access to the health care we take for granted. Precious little has changed in three decades.

The thanks these workers get is our anger and derision. The Steve Kings of the political world demagogue immigrants and refugees for political gain, comparing them to cattle, depicting them as drug mules, terrorists and criminals. Denying them health care and other basic benefits has become a bedrock Republican litmus test. Any calls for compassion are met with cries of “Amnesty!”

Reynolds and other statehouse Republicans raised money and hell in 2018 over “sanctuary cities” shielding scary immigrants. They stoke fear while large agricultural industries that donate to their campaigns put undocumented immigrants to work. It’s a shameful cycle. But, hey, the plants must be up and running.

Turns out these political pawns are humans, who get sick and die. So long as we keep getting cheap pork chops, why worry?

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It’s been more than two weeks since the League of Latin American Citizens, LULAC, and other groups warned about plant conditions as the pandemic emerged. This month they charged the state with violating workers’ civil rights by failing to provide COVID-19 information in their languages. More groups have called on Reynolds to protect these workers. Surely, she says, the companies will take care of it.

Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch, the Trump administration is considering policy changes that would give these companies greater autonomy from regulation. Why bother? OSHA’s operating with the fewest safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history.

Poultry companies have asked Trump for a waiver from maximum line speed rules. So clearly, the companies are taking care of workers.

“These policies are, and might increasingly, endanger workers, placing their physical and mental health, lives, and livelihoods at risk,” Human Rights Watch concluded.

Reynolds talked about state’s efforts at “changing the narrative” of the pandemic. But I wish she had also been talking about our decades of shortchanging the vulnerable for profit.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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