One-Third of Meatpackers Reluctant to Return to Work Amid COVID-19 Fears

Source: capa34/123RF

Despite “extensive safety measures at great cost” several meatpackers have reported that up to half of their workers have not shown up for work, either through self-quarantine or fear of contracting COVID-19 after a severe outbreak in the industry.

More than a dozen meatpacking workers, union leaders, and advocates told Reuters that many employees still fear getting sick after losing confidence in management during coronavirus outbreaks in April and May.

Absenteeism varies by plant, and exact data is not available, but some workers’ unwillingness to return poses a challenge to an industry still struggling to restore normal meat output.

Daily pork production was down by as much as 45% in late April as some 20 plants closed because of outbreaks.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that processors slaughtered about 438,000 hogs on Friday, down 12% from the peak before the pandemic.

According to the report, plants became hotbeds of infection because they house thousands of employees working in close quarters.

According to the CDC, workers involved in meat and poultry processing are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the meat products they handle. However, their work environments—processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors—may contribute substantially to their potential exposures.

Outbreaks tightened meat supplies and contributed to a 40.4% surge in prices in May.

Industry experts say consumer prices are likely going to stay higher than they’re used to, plus it will take months to work through a backlog of millions of pigs and cattle that had nowhere to go for processing.

As of last week, beef, pork, and poultry plants were operating at over 95 percent of 2019 production levels.

An Associated Press report says that’s up from 60 percent in April during the height of plant closures and slowdowns.