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How the meatpacking industry skirted COVID safety regulations with the help of the White House

The Greeley JBS meat packing plant sits idle on April 16, 2020 in Greeley, Colorado.  (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
The Greeley JBS meat packing plant sits idle on April 16, 2020 in Greeley, Colorado. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Meatpacking companies skirted COVID safety regulations. And they did it with the White House’s help, according to a little known Congressional report.

“There was this collusion between the Trump administration and the industry to sacrifice workers and their communities so that this industry can make money,” Debbie Berkowitz, fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor says.

In April 2020, President Trump signed an Executive Order keeping meatpacking plants open. Who wrote it? The industry.

So how’d they get away with it?

Today, On Point: We’ll hear that whole story.

Guests

Michael Grabell, reporter at ProPublica. Lead reporter on the investigative series On the Line: How the Meatpacking Industry Became a Hotbed of COVID-19. (@MichaelGrabell)

Debbie Berkowitz, fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Former chief of staff and senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from 2009 to 2015. (@DebbieBerkowitz)

Also Featured

Betty Rangel, the daughter of Saul Sanchez, a former meatpacking worker at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado.

Digital Exclusive: How The Meatpacking Industry Influenced Its Own Regulation During The Most Deadly Months Of The COVID Pandemic

American meatpacking plants were COVID hotspots in the earliest months of the pandemic. Almost 60,000 workers at the nation’s five largest meat packing companies were infected by COVID.

And yet, for months, meatpacking corporations resisted adding mitigation measures to their plants. They lobbied to force employees to continue working, even as outbreaks that began in their plants spread into local communities.

How was that allowed to happen?

This spring, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a barely noticed report that answers that question.

The committee found that billion dollar meatpacking companies, including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Company were in regular, frequent, and private contact with the highest levels of the Trump administration.

The contact went beyond lobbying. The report finds that the meatpackers misled the public about the nation’s meat supply, drafted versions of an executive order later signed by Donald Trump, and even directly shaped watered down mitigation guidance issued by the CDC.

The House report offers evidence of “the meatpacking industry’s regulatory capture of Trump’s USDA.”

What else did the report find?

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By March 2020, the COVID threat was clear. According to industry emails published in the House report, in March 2020, it was also clear that meatpacking companies felt “fortunate” that a Trump-appointed USDA undersecretary was named to a significant role on the White House COVID Task Force. Under secretary Mindy Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” wrote one industry lobbyist.

Workers faced a different reality.

On March 13, 2020, Saul Sanchez expected the day would be like any other. So, he did what he always did. He woke up before dawn and got to work early. Very early.

“His work ethic was amazing. If he had to be in at 6:00 in the morning, he was parked in the parking lot by 4:30 in the morning, which we always make fun of him for that,” Betty Rangel, Saul’s daughter said.

Betty is one of Sanchez’s six children. Besides being hardworking, Saul also really cared about his health.

“His routine in the morning included, he’d get up, he’d take a shower, he’d make his shake with spinach and nuts,” Betty said. “And he always offered us a shake, ‘You know, this is healthy stuff,’ he’d say. And we were like, ‘No, yuck,'” she said with a laugh.

Saul worked at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado. JBS is the world’s largest meatpacker. In 2021, JBS posted net profits north of $4 billion.

Saul was one of the 3,200 employees at the Greeley plant. He’d worked there for more than 30 years on the fabrication floor, separating meat from bone as beef carcasses moved down the line.

Saul had neatly trimmed black and silver hair, a round, gentle face, and kind eyes that peeked out from beneath his bushy eyebrows.

Betty said her father had another distinguishing feature: his hands.

“Because you could tell his fingers were crooked or shaped just the way he had to hold his knife and everything. I mean, obviously, working there 30 years had to take a toll on his hands,” Betty said.

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On that day, March 13, 2020, Saul Sanchez picked up his sharpened knife, and stood shoulder to shoulder with other workers.

No one had a mask, or other personal protective equipment that could get in the way of the knives. At the time, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

But later that day, something unusual happened. The workers were called to a meeting in the cafeteria. Saul went, hopeful that the company would talk about protecting workers from COVID.

Just three days earlier, Colorado governor Jared Polis had declared a state of emergency. The NBA had just suspended its season. The nation was starting to take the pandemic seriously. Maybe JBS would, too.

”They tried to encourage them by letting them know they were going to get 5 pounds of meat for free. And they could put in overtime. And they never talked about COVID. The company never discussed that,” Betty said.

Betty said her dad was worried. Workers were already whispering among themselves that COVID was in the plant.

”When I first brought up, ‘Were they separating you guys, social distancing? Are they providing hand sanitizer?’ They were like, ‘Betty, they don’t even provide paper towels or hand soap on a regular basis. You think they’re going to provide anything for us right now during COVID?’ And it just blew my mind,” she said.

Betty said Saul had heard JBS management tell workers who wanted to wear masks they’d risk getting fired. Apparently, JBS didn’t want anyone creating “panic.”

But none of that could shake Saul’s loyalty to the company.

”He trusted JBS, the company, that if they were in danger, they would take care of their employees,” Betty said. “‘I’m sure if it’s really bad, JBS will make sure to let us know or we’ll provide whatever we need,’” she said her father told her.

On Point reached out to JBS directly and they did not get back to us. But in a previous written statement, they denied such claims.

“[We offered] unlimited PPE to employees, enacted social distancing protocols, provided COVID testing and covered health costs,” the statement said.

But even before the pandemic, Betty said JBS didn’t provide workers with what they needed.

She remembers a story, after her father came home from work one day:

”He came home, he was sitting in the van. And I asked him what was wrong, and he said he peed his pants. They wouldn’t let him have a break or time to go to the restroom,” she recalls.

“And he was very embarrassed. He didn’t really want to talk about it, you know. But I think, I mean, how humiliating. How awful of circumstances do you have to be working in for them, [to] not even allow you to take a restroom break?”

Saul’s trust in a giant international meatpacking conglomerate was based on a deeper feeling. Saul Longaria Sanchez was an immigrant. Mexican born.

Like Saul, Many workers in the meatpacking industry are immigrants, and specifically 42% are Latino.

For 30 years, the steady employment at the Greeley meatpacking plant allowed Saul and his wife to provide their children with the kind of education that guaranteed they would never have to work in the kind of place their father did.

A place where sometimes employees weren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom.

“They’re hardworking, obviously. I mean, it’s a hard job, underpaid as it is,” Betty said. “And then for them to treat the employees like that? I expect to hear that from a third world country or something. But not here in the USA.”

Two days after that March 13 meeting in the cafeteria, Saul got sick. He felt nauseated and stopped eating. He still went to work.

At the same time, behind the scenes, the meatpacking companies were doing everything they could to prevent worried or sick employees from staying home.

The House subcommittee report reveals emails between industry lobbyists and USDA officials laying out the industry’s preferred policies. One email instructs USDA to “educate the Department of Labor” on developing CARES Act rules that “[do not] incentivize our workers to stay home.”

More days passed. By late March, Saul got so sick, he spiked a 102 degree fever, and stopped going to work.

Later on, a statement from JBS USA would claim that Saul had missed work because he was on vacation in Texas.

“Given his age, we informed him he was a part of a high risk population while he was on vacation, and encouraged him to stay home, which he did,” the statement read.

Saul’s daughter Betty said that’s preposterous. Her father never took that vacation. He missed work, she says, because Saul ended up in the hospital.

____

Betty’s sister Patty is a nurse at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. It was Patty who told Saul he had to get to the hospital. Because even though JBS wasn’t talking about it, the hospital’s beds were rapidly filling with COVID-stricken meatpacking workers.

”Yeah, she told me. She’s like, Betty, there’s so many people. JBS is doing nothing and people are getting sick. And once they’re getting out from the hospital, they’re telling them they need to go back to work or they are going to lose their job, even though they’re still with COVID,” Betty said.

Saul was admitted on March 24, 2020. The next day, doctors confirmed he had COVID.

Saul wanted to alert his co-workers. He asked Betty to call JBS, to tell them that her father had the virus. He wanted the company to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting sick.

Betty called the company directly. Left messages. She finally got through, but didn’t get far.

“They were just asking me for his number. And I’m like, right, my dad’s Saul Sanchez, he’s worked there 30 years. And they’re like, ‘So you have his employee number? Because other than that, we have nothing,’” she recalled.

“So, I understand that part of them being a big company and stuff, but come on.”

Her father’s condition deteriorated. Doctors tried supplemental oxygen and medications that were available at the time. But the virus had taken over his lungs.

They put Saul on a ventilator. He never recovered.

On April 7, 2020, Saul was taken off the ventilator. His family wasn’t allowed to gather at his bedside. Only Patty, the nurse, and one brother were in the room with their father. Patty started a FaceTime call, holding her phone close to Saul as Betty and the rest of the family said goodbye.

”I just told him I was thankful to God for having given me him as my father. He’s exactly what I needed,” she said, as tears swelled. ”But there’s no way we’ll know if he ever heard us or not, you know. So yeah. That’s what’s hard for us.”

Saul Longoria Sanchez was 78 years old when he died on April 7. He was the first employee at the JBS meatpacking plant to die in the pandemic. Hundreds more workers were already sick.

JBS was feeling the pressure, and industry lobbyists went to the highest levels of the Trump administration to block Colorado health officials from closing the plant.

Within days of Saul Sanchez’s death, a meatpacking lobbyist contacted Vice President Mike Pence’s office asking the White House to “say that we need and expect plants to keep operating even with COVID positive tests.” A Pence aide assured the lobbyist that “we are working closely with USDA on the JBS issue in Colorado.”

Pence then had CDC director Robert Redfield call the Colorado state health director and push for the plant to stay open.

Nevertheless, the JBS plant did close temporarily on April 15. The company installed plexiglass dividers and hand sanitizers, increased social distancing and started a mask policy. The plant reopened on April 24, 2020.

____

By April, thousands of meatpacking workers at plants across the country were getting sick. That month, at least 900 workers at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant were infected. Two died.

On April 26, CDC published COVID mitigation guidelines for meatpacking plants. But as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow noted at the time, there was a catch:

“Why did they wait so long? I don’t know. But they did put out these guidelines as of yesterday. And the guidelines are … purely voluntary,” she said during her show.

We now know why. Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan had a hand in crafting the CDC’s guidelines.

According to the House Subcommittee report, on April 21, Smithfield Foods obtained an initial draft of CDC’s proposed regulations. CEO Sullivan hand edited the draft.

Identifying proposals he thought were “problematic” for the industry, and suggesting language dramatically watering down the regulations. Sullivan’s edits were sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office. On April 26, CDC director Robert Redfield included the changes in the agency’s final guidance.

CDC wasn’t the only compromised agency. South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said the committee’s report also found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration helped meatpacking companies skirt worker protections.

“OSHA officials recently told the Select Subcommittee that they were limited in their ability to protect meatpacking workers last year,” he said during a hearing back in October.

“Because Trump Administration appointees made a, and I quote, ‘political decision’ unquote, not to seek additional authorities that would have allowed the agency to enforce coronavirus safety protocols more forcefully.”

Industry influence reached all the way to the Oval Office.

In one of the House report’s most shocking findings, on April 12, CEO’s of the big five meatpacking companies discussed how to draft and push a “Presidential Executive Order, invoking the Defense Production Act as a mechanism to manage” state and local interference with the plants.

One of the main arguments for such an executive order was to prevent a “meat shortage.”

In a press release on April 12, 2020, Smithfield CEO and President Kenneth Sullivan wrote that the closure of this facility is “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

But reports show this “meat shortage” was all a lie.

According to an expert at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, there was so much pork in cold storage as of March 2020 that it would have been sufficient to supply grocery shelves for approximately the next 14 months.

The next day on April 13, Tyson Foods’ legal department wrote up a draft executive order.

Crucially, it included language absolving the meatpackers of any liability for sick or dead workers. The big five companies sent the draft to the White House.

Two weeks later, on April 28, 2020, Trump signed a Presidential Executive Order that required the meatpacking plants to stay open, and “adopted themes and directives laid out in the meatpacking industry’s draft,” according to the House report.

Here’s how Trump himself put it, on the morning he signed the executive order:

“We are going to sign an executive order today … that will solve any liability problems,” he told reporters. “They had certain liability problems. And we will be in very good shape. We are working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in that world.”

With the plants back open, these companies made more and more money.

According to the National Economic Council, meat processors generated record profits during the pandemic, with net margins as high as 300%.

During this time, the Trump administration also allowed 15 poultry plants to increase slaughter line speed despite the pandemic. That included a Tyson plant in Arkansas, where Jose Lopez works.

We are not using Jose’s real name, and won’t be giving specifics on the exact plant he works at, because he fears employer retaliation for speaking out.

Jose told us the line he works on would normally have 30 workers. But because so many were out sick with COVID, there were days when there were only seven.

They still had to do the same amount of work.

Jose only speaks Spanish, so Magaly Licolli interpreted for us.

“It was very hard because the line speed was the same. And actually it never decreased. And contrary, they increased the line speed and they forced us to even work Saturdays and Sundays to recover the production,” he said. “It was a mandate to keep up with the production, no matter how many workers were working in the line.”

According to data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, these plants were 10 times as likely to have coronavirus cases than poultry plants without line-speed increases.

Tyson would not comment on specifics. But in an email, a spokesperson told us:

“Throughout the pandemic our top priority has been and continues to be the health and safety of our team members.”

All and all, under the Trump Administration, these five companies were issued eight OSHA citations related to COVID-19, amounting to less than $80,000 in penalties.

The specific plant where Saul Sanchez worked was only fined $15,000. That’s one-hundred thousandth of one percent of the money that they paid out in dividends and stock buybacks during that period.

Where Jose Lopez works, not a single violation was issued.

Those are just a few ways the meatpacking industry influenced its own regulation during the most deadly weeks and months of the COVID pandemic.

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The North American Meat Institute, the lobbying group for the industry, refutes the House’s report. In a statement, the group says the committee “uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

Betty Rangel is dismayed by what the House report reveals. She says it’s clear that when her father Saul Sanchez died on April 7, 2020, JBS, the company he’d given 30 years to, knew it could have done more.

“If they would have had them wearing masks, and if they would have done the social distancing starting in February, I don’t believe they would have had the deaths they did,” she said. “And I don’t believe my dad would be in that situation. I don’t think he would have passed away. They were completely sacrificed for profits.”

Related Reading

ProPublica: “On The Line: How the Meatpacking Industry Became a Hotbed of COVID-19” — “ProPublica investigates how big meat companies pushed to keep their plants running even as their workers, and the communities they lived in, became among the hardest hit by the pandemic — and how the government failed to stop them.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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