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In the weeks since the novel coronavirus began to spread across meatpacking plants nationwide, families in places like Worthington, Minnesota, have had their health, resources, and patience tested.

Like many rural areas where there have been large COVID-19 outbreaks, Worthington’s largest employer is a meatpacking plant. JBS, the nation’s leading processor of beef and pork, employs 2,400 people in Worthington, five times the amount of the town’s public school system. Much like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers located in small rural towns and run by private prison companies, meatpacking plants rely on immigrants to make a profit. In turn, companies that own these plants are positioned by city councils and county commissioners as pillars in the community for reviving the region’s economy and providing jobs to local residents. Also, much like the for-profit companies behind ICE’s detention centers, the meatpacking industry is powerful, protected, and “used to getting what it wants.”

Under the Trump administration, the already poorly regulated industry has been allowed to implement even more “dangerous and drastic increases in line speeds” as well as a reduction in safety inspections. Meatpacking was already one of the most dangerous industries in the country, and rife with abuse, unsafe working conditions, and exploitation. In a work environment where losing a limb is already a possibility, the coronavirus has made conditions at meatpacking plants inconceivably worse

This also means that things have gotten worse for the families of meatpacking plant workers, a large, nationwide patchwork of low-income people, communities of color, and immigrants, the same populations already hard-hit by COVID-19. When their loved ones get sick or injured working in meatpacking plants, it has major implications for their lives.

‘I worried we would die’

Alejandra and her husband Antonio have lived in Worthington for more than two decades, but their lives in the rural town have never been as tumultuous as during the past two months.

Antonio works at the JBS pork plant in town. On April 20, the plant was supposed to close “indefinitely” after the Minnesota Department of Health found that 26 workers were infected with COVID-19, along with five of their family members. Weeks later it was revealed that hundreds of workers at the JBS plant in Worthington had tested positive for COVID-19. But two weeks later on May 6, the plant was reopened. President Donald Trump’s executive order gave the company the justification it needed to continue exposing workers to the coronavirus. There was also an economic argument for reopening: The plant processes 20,000 pigs a day, and is a key buyer for Minnesota hog farmers.

When asked for the most current number of infected workers at the Worthington plant, a JBS spokesperson told Prism Friday the company is “not attempting to report the number of impacted team members” because of “the evolving nature of this situation.”

The news coming from the plant has been “confusing,” Alejandra told Prism. Rumors were circulating that the outbreak in the Worthington plant was larger than officials were saying publicly—a common theme in rural towns with large processing plants. When the entire world is abuzz with panic and fear about the coronavirus, there’s no describing the level of panic that hit when COVID-19 inches closer to home, hitting your town, your immediate community, and your husband’s workplace. Inevitably, it appeared on Alejandra’s doorstep and her worst fear was realized.

In mid-April, after the JBS plant in Worthington implemented measures to detect COVID-19, including mandatory temperature checks, Antonio was sent home from work for having an elevated temperature.

“When he first came home from work, he told me that two people in his line tested positive. He said, ‘They wanted them to keep going, they wanted them to keep working,’” Alejandra said, noting that in the days prior to getting sick, Antonio attended a meeting at JBS in which members of upper management allegedly said line workers needed to come into work each day to get the product out.

“They care more about the product than the people,” Alejandra said.

In a statement to Prism, JBS said the company does not want “sick team members coming to work.”

“No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” the spokesperson said.

Within hours of being sent home, Antonio developed the classic COVID-19 symptoms: cough, fever, headaches, chills, and shaking. Antonio has what doctors call “comorbidities,” the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic diseases or conditions. Antonio is diabetic and has hypertension, and his COVID-19 symptoms quickly became worse. Alejandra called a local clinic, unsure of what else to do. After describing the severity of Antonio’s symptoms, a nurse instructed Alejandra to call 911.

“They took him away in an ambulance,” Alejandra said. “It was a very scary moment for my family.”

Thankfully Antonio was discharged the same day, his vitals stable. Alejandra and the couple’s 11-year-old daughter were tested. Their child was negative. Alejandra was positive.

“It’s just hard to describe the panic and the fear that you feel,” Alejandra told Prism. “I thought that we were gonna die, literally. I worried we would die.”

As of May 14, Antonio is still recovering from COVID-19 and hasn’t returned to work at JBS. Alejandra’s symptoms have been mild and their daughter remains well, but their family life has become challenging. The family is in quarantine and they want to keep their daughter COVID-19-free, if possible. This means that when Alejandra interacts with her child, she wears a mask and gloves. In their small, one-bedroom home, Antonio has been isolated in the bedroom, their daughter sleeps on the living room couch, and Alejandra sleeps in the kitchen.

Alejandra said she knows many families in Worthington now existing like hers⁠, living in so many in-between places: quarantined together, but separated; technically employed, but at home sick and afraid to return to work at JBS. Alejandra told Prism she wants people to understand that in Worthington, Minnesota, JBS employs immigrants from all over the world: Burma, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and countries in East and West Africa. These are the people risking their lives to keep Americans fed. These are the people getting sick. These are the people companies like JBS are failing to inform and protect.

A blessing and a curse

These are people like Imani, an immigrant from East Africa in her mid-40s who worked at JBS for two years. It is both a blessing and a curse that for health reasons, she was forced to take leave at the beginning of the year. JBS officially terminated Imani months later, after the coronavirus enveloped the Worthington plant. From afar, she watched as hundreds of her former co-workers became sick with COVID-19.

Imani may have escaped contracting the coronavirus at JBS, but now she and her daughter Mary are in a different kind of crisis. They are relying on a meager amount of food stamps and Imani can barely pay the rent. Like millions across the country, Imani is hoping to get unemployment. There are a lot of unknowns, but one thing Imani knows for sure is that she doesn’t want to work at a meatpacking plant again.

“They treat animals better than people there,” Imani said. “I was afraid to work there.”

Before the pandemic, Imani alleges that a Sudanese man who worked at JBS told his supervisor he didn’t feel well, but his supervisor told him to continue working. Shortly after, Imani says the man passed out on the line. He was rushed to the hospital, where Imani alleges he died. Among JBS workers, the man’s story became a cautionary tale about the industry they worked in, one that worked people to death.

JBS confirmed portions of Imani’s story, telling Prism that a worker collapsed outside the facility in 2016.

“The person was given CPR by our occupational health team then taken to the hospital by ambulance where he later died,” the spokesperson said.

Imani said she left JBS because she didn’t want something like that happening to her, but she also doesn’t want it happening to other workers.

“These jobs are harmful to health. The job I did was very hard. People run away from it, it’s so hard. The line moves very fast and there are supposed to be six people working it, but there would only be four,” Imani said. “My hand would swell and if I told my supervisor I was in pain, he would tell me to keep working because there was no one there to cover for me.”

Workers in JBS plants slaughter and process hundreds of animals an hour, working at high speeds in cold conditions, doing thousands of the same repetitions over and over again. The “furious pace fuels an array of assaults to workers’ muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, causing sprains, strains, pains, or inflammation,” Harvest Public Media reported.

Making matters worse, in September 2019 the Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized a new rule that removed a cap on the speed inspection lines can run and removed 40% of government food safety inspectors from plants, “turning their tasks over to plant operators with no required training, and allow plants to aggressively increase their already breakneck line speeds to process more hogs per hour—and increase profits,” Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project, told The Hill.

During her two years at the plant, Imani says she did her best to encourage others to speak up about the conditions they were facing, but she also understood their fear. A majority of the workers in Worthington are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, according to Imani. Many she worked the line with were women who didn’t speak English, and they had children to feed. Worthington is a small place, and no other companies in the area hire immigrant workers in such large numbers who don’t speak English.

Given the number of workers who’ve gotten sick with COVID-19 and the number of workers nationwide who’ve died from the disease, Imani said she’s grateful to have gotten out alive.

But why continue speaking out? What does she get out of it?

“Because I want people to get the message that we are not machines. We are humans. We cannot go faster. We cannot do more. [JBS is] going to kill people,” Imani said. “None of us who work at these places go to work to kill ourselves; we go to work to pay our bills, to take care of our kids, to try to have a better life. We do hard jobs in these places, but if we speak out we get fired. We deserve better.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.