By Rebecca Boehm, Union of Concerned Scientists
On April 28, President Trump issued an executive order directing slaughterhouses and meat and poultry processing plants to remain open as critical infrastructure. The order noted that these facilities should follow CDC guidelines to protect workers from COVID-19. However, the guidelines in the order were described as voluntary, and no enforcement mechanism yet exists to ensure that these measures are being taken. Conditions right now are so bad that the AFL-CIO, which represents the nation’s largest labor unions, announced Monday that it is suing the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration for not protecting American workers from COVID-19. We wanted to know how much worse this situation might get.
Meat and poultry plant workers in particular already had some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs. They work in close quarters on high speed production lines with sharp tools to process animal carcasses into the cuts of meat we eat. They are also predominantly people of color. Since 1970 the share of Hispanic workers in this industry has increased dramatically, while at the same time industry-wide wages have gone down and disability cases per worker have gone up.
Recent reports show COVID-19 has already spread like wildfire in hundreds of meat, poultry and processed food plants in the US. Our new analysis–using recent data on infections at meat and poultry plants–estimates that 16,000 meat and poultry workers who work at plants that have not yet been affected are at risk of being infected with COVID-19 without proper health and safety protections. We also identify which of these communities of workers reside in areas with limited health care resources to cope with an outbreak, if one were to occur. We found that eight states (Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) are at risk of overflowing hospital intensive care units (ICUs) if additional COVID-19 infections occurred in meat and poultry plants that have not already seen outbreaks.
What we know about meat and poultry plant workers and COVID-19 cases and deaths to date
At least 17,700 cases of COVID-19 and 70 worker deaths have been reported in 216 meatpacking and food processing plants, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). That’s an average of 82 infected workers per plant.
The scientific consensus so far is that the coronavirus R0 (pronounced “R-naught”), a number representing how many people one sick person can infect, is between 2 and 2.5. This means that 82 sick meat plant workers could result in an additional 2,300 infections in a community in as little as 12 days, assuming four days per infection generation. Weeks ago, FERN’s map showed just a scattering of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and food plants, mostly in the Midwest. As of May 20, the map demonstrated outbreaks in plants from coast to coast.
It’s getting worse. Infections among meat and poultry plant workers can also spill over into the communities in which these workers live. An analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that between April 28 and May 5—the week after the Trump executive order—the rate of infection of COVID-19 for all counties with very large meatpacking plants was twice the national rate for all counties without such plants. This analysis could not establish a cause and effect relationship between the meat plants and COVID-19 community spread with absolute certainty. But the findings shed light on the fact that large meatpacking plants—given their design, operation, and lack of consistent health and safety protections—could accelerate the spread of the virus in many areas, including rural communities.
Our analysis of data obtained from the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (BLS QECW, county and state files using six-digit North American Industry Classification industry definitions) for Quarters 1-3, along with the New York Times tracking of county-reported COVID-19 positive tests and deaths, indicates that the spread of COVID-19 via meat and poultry plants could get much worse than it is now, especially given President Trump’s executive order. What is more, some local and state officials want to re-open businesses without ensuring appropriate public health protections for these workers and the public at large. In Iowa, a state where meatpacking workers have been hit hard by COVID-19, local governments are struggling even to get information about infection and testing rates in the plants in their communities.
Here is what our analyses found about the additional risks the Trump Administration’s order is posing to meat and poultry plant workers and communities across the country:
Slaughterhouses and meat and poultry plants are located all over the United States, and they could accelerate COVID-19 spread in many communities.
There are approximately 507,000 workers employed at 3,900 meat and poultry plants across the United States. They are spread across 1,600 counties, which is just about half of all US counties. A combined 227 million people (70 percent of the US population) reside in a county with one of these plants.
Below is a map we created showing where all USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants are located. It should be noted that while there are many relatively small meat and poultry plants scattered around the country, they account for the minority share of total US meat and poultry slaughter and processing, meaning that most workers in this industry are employed in relatively large plants.
In April, the CDC found that confirmed per-capita COVID-19 case rates in a subset of meat and poultry plants were 10 times higher than that of the general US population. By UCS’s estimate based on infections observed to date, keeping all plants operating as they are today is inviting an explosion of illness: assuming 4.2 percent of the nation’s meat and poultry workers in plants yet unaffected will contract COVID-19, at least 16,000 additional confirmed cases would be expected in these plants. We assumed a 4.2 percent infection rate based on current confirmed cases in infected plants, accounting for differences in plant sizes in the remaining plants.
Most of these plants are large, employing up to thousands of people who must work in close quarters.
The average number of workers in these plants varies depending on the type of animal slaughtered or processed. We used BLS QECW state level data on total plants and workers to calculate average workers per plant (data on number of workers at individual plants is not available from government agencies because of privacy issues or disclosure risks).
Using state-level data, we found that on average, 110 people work in each red meat (beef, pork, lamb) slaughtering plant; the majority of plants employ between 83 and 137 workers (using the 95% confidence interval of the average we compute). Similarly, plants that process carcasses into different types of red meat—bacon, hot dogs, etc.—employ on average 73 workers each and the majority of plants employ between 58 and 88 total workers. Meanwhile, poultry processing plants employ on average 388 workers and the majority employ between 276 and 500 employees. While there are data disclosure issues, we do know from recent media reports that some of these plants can employ thousands of people.
These data illustrate that many of these plants employ a large number of people who, because of the design of these plants, must work close to one another. Thus, being required to go to work without proper protections could put these particular workers and their communities at greater risk of COVID-19 spread.
Cumulative COVID-19 deaths and positive tests to date are almost 1.5 times higher in counties with just one meat and poultry plant, compared to counties that don’t have any.
The analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers mentioned earlier found that the rate of infection in counties with the largest meat plants was twice as high as in counties without one from April 28 and May 5.
We did a slightly different analysis by comparing cumulative counts of positive COVID-19 tests and deaths (using New York Times tracking data, linked earlier) as of May 11 in counties with and without any meat or poultry plants. We found that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths per 1,000 people in a county is 1.4 times higher (a result that is statistically significant and unlikely to be due to chance error) in counties with at least one of these plants, compared to counties with none. Our results too must be interpreted with caution because we cannot claim there is a cause and effect relationship between these plants and increased COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Eight states have fewer ICU beds than projected COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry plant workers (includes cases already reported plus projected cases in plants not yet affected).
In some areas with meat and poultry plants, and therefore vulnerable workers, a shortage of healthcare resources amplifies risks. For example, using the methods described above, we identified eight states that have a large number of meat and poultry plant workers in plants not yet affected by COVID-19 and that also don’t have enough ICU beds to accommodate additional workers who could soon be infected by the virus—some of whom may need an ICU bed if they become seriously ill.
States with fewer ICU beds than projected COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry plant workers (includes cases already reported plus projected cases in plants not yet affected)
|State||Total meat and poultry plant workers already reported with a positive COVID-19 test||Estimate for potential number of new workers with positive COVID-19 test||Total ICU beds (Kaiser Health Network, 2020)|
What should we do to address the spread of COVID-19 in meat and poultry plants?
Many parts of our country are rushing to “re-open,” and we are all thinking about how we can have some semblance of normal life if COVID-19 is here for a long while. Some think we must return to how things were even if it puts people at risk, because the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns are hurting the economy. But “open” or “closed” is a false choice. Economists and public health experts generally agree that the economic health of our country need not be at odds with the health and safety of our workers and communities. The only way we can safely reduce the economic damage caused by the virus is by protecting people, especially workers on the front lines of it, and that includes our food and farm workers.
Congress and the Trump Administration must protect our food system workers and the nation’s food supply. Here is how:
- The Trump administration should immediately rescind its Executive Order that keeps meat and poultry plants open under the Defense Production Act, unless workers are provided with adequate health and safety protections to reduce COVID-19 exposure. These plants pose a great public health risk for many communities if workers are not appropriately protected.
- In addition, and particularly because the administration probably won’t do that, the Senate must take up and pass the House-passed HEROES Act, which provides worker health and safety protections that are really the bare minimum for our food and farm workers.
- To increase the likelihood that these measures are included in the eventual Senate bill, members of the House and Senate alike should co-sponsor the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, which contains enforceable, science-based protections for frontline workers, including meat and poultry workers and other food chain workers. Such standards would limit infections among workers on the front lines of our food and farm system, as well as employees in the healthcare sector, paramedic and emergency medical services, and others identified as having elevated risk of exposure. The House of Representatives folded this bill’s provisions into the HEROES Act, but broader congressional support for these critical worker protections is needed.
This last one is something you can help with now. Urge your elected representatives to support and co-sponsor the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act today.