- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
Meatpacking plants have become major vectors of the novel coronavirus, accelerating the pace of contagion in towns across the United States. An investigation by the Washington Post revealed that three of the largest meat-processing firms in the country — Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods — continued to operate well after the national social distancing guideline in March, severely compromising the health of a low-paid, largely immigrant workforce.
At least 3,300 workers at those three companies have fallen ill as a result, and at least seventeen have died. US meat production has reportedly fallen by about 25 percent, as sick and frightened workers stay home and understaffed plants are forced to close up shop.
On Tuesday, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate that meat-processing plants continue to operate, saying the closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” The order authorizes the Department of Agriculture to ensure that meat-processing plants are exempt from mandatory shutdown orders, overriding emergency mitigation policies at the state and local levels. The Labor Department is expected to issue guidance in the coming days to insulate owners from any liability for keeping the plants open.
Cargill Protein was among the meat-processing companies that slowed down production, albeit reluctantly, after the crisis spiraled out of control. Earlier this month, the company temporarily closed plants across the United States and Canada. One of those plants was Cargill Hazleton, in eastern Pennsylvania, where 162 employees tested positive for the COVID-19. The company announced a one-week closure of the plant on April 9, but the damage was already done. Rural Luzerne County, where Hazleton is located, is now one of the Pennsylvania counties most affected by the pandemic, with more than two thousand confirmed cases and seventy-one deaths.
According to his family, sixty-four-year-old Rafael Benjamin became the first Cargill Hazleton worker to die of COVID-19 when he passed away on Sunday, April 19. Benjamin had worked at the plant for seventeen years and expected to retire in just a few months. The plant resumed operations the morning after his death, and managers have so far made no statement.
Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke to a technician at Cargill Hazleton a few days after plant managers announced the temporary closure. In the following interview (translated from Spanish and edited for clarity), the worker reveals that the company lied to employees about the risk of infection for more than a week, that maintenance staff were still required to work (without the benefit of masks) while the plant was supposedly closed, and that the bosses’ culture of carelessness and abuse made a bad situation incalculably worse. The interview subject has been granted anonymity to protect them from reprisal.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a Hispanic person who works in the maintenance field. I immigrated to the United States in search of a career similar to the one I had in my home country, but meanwhile I had the opportunity to work in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. First I got a job as a mechanic at a local company, but later I changed jobs to work for Cargill in their maintenance department. I’ve been a technician at Cargill for many years now.
When I first came here, there were very few Hispanics in Hazleton. I lived through the Lou Barletta era [Barletta, the mayor, instated an anti-immigrant ordinance in 2006 that was later overturned], and I saw a lot of discrimination, abuse, hate. Not all of them [white Anglo-Americans] are bad; there are some very good people, as well. But they underestimate us.
What’s it like to work at Cargill?
Cargill of Hazleton is a company that processes meat into raw chunks. Because it has to stay at an average temperature of twenty-seven to thirty degrees Fahrenheit, the facility is a single building separated into three departments: shipping, production, and receiving. Receiving, of course, receives the meat and, according to the orders, puts it out on the corresponding line. There are some lines that are bones, others that are filets, different things. There’s also the ground meat and multivac departments, which produce exclusive meats for Applebees.
The workers who start the line put these pieces on conveyors that spray the meat with chemicals (FreshFlex and ascorbic acid). There are machines that cut the meat, from simple bandsaws to the Grasselli, which has long backwards blades, to the more sophisticated Marelec, which uses a long revolving blade to cut steaks. On three lines, they’ve installed TVIs and Waterjets, which use water pressure to cut the meat, but these machines need a lot of personnel because they operate very fast. Workers carve the meat entering the machine at the beginning, as well as the selected cuts at the end, in addition to cleaning and packing.
The packing staff work very close together. Conveyors move the steaks, which arrive supposedly clean of fat and already cut, and workers place them on trays and then on another conveyor that takes them to a machine called the Galaxy, which wraps the whole thing in plastic. From there they go to the Bizerba, which places labels on each product to indicate its weight, price, and any information required by regulation. Then the trays are bagged through a vacuum process, and nitrogen gas is introduced. Finally, the production process ends when those bags are placed in boxes or totes, which are then sent to shipping on palettes. Shipping then delivers the product to stores in refrigerated trucks.
That’s the process. My job is to perform operations maintenance on all those lines. Generally, I work four days a week, twelve hours a day. I feel like they pay me well for the rural area where I live, but they always need staff.
Describe a normal workday.
I show up to work at 4:55 in the morning. Before the machines start up, sanitation performs their cleaning process, because there’s a quality control department that checks up on the complex [where Cargill is a tenant]. When sanitation finishes cleaning, quality control tells us, “Okay, you guys can go in now.” The mechanics start up the machines so when the operators arrive they can begin using them. The operators start showing up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and they work until 3 in the afternoon.
At that time, there’s a shift change (the new shift is supposed to work until 1:30 in the morning), but they don’t wash the machines. They keep them running. Depending on the delay in each line [due to machine repairs], the second shift may get started late, so sometimes it stays until 3 in the morning. You can imagine how little time sanitation has to clean all those machines [before technicians come back onto the floor at 5 AM].
How many people work at the plant?
That’s difficult to say exactly. But the average is nine hundred, on both the first and second shifts. Now, if there are nine hundred production workers on the floor, eight-hundred-ninety-eight of them are Hispanics. Even in my department, maintenance, I’d say only about 40 percent are white.
The people who work as production employees at Cargill do have work authorization papers, because there’s an immigration system, E-Verify, that checks up on them. All the sanitation workers are Hispanic, I think because it’s not easy to find any employees — much less American ones — willing to do that work. It’s horrible and disgusting.
What are the bosses like?
The bosses have offices upstairs that they remodel according to the season. But those of us down on the floor are the other side of the coin, because they never want to buy any spare parts for the machines. This is a disgrace. As a technician, I want the machines to be in optimal condition, both for quality and for safety. I don’t want to “put a bandage on it just to make it run.”
The vast majority of the bosses are white. Some supervisors are friendly, and they try to speak a little Spanish. But the principal managers won’t speak to us; they always have to call for a translator.
The plant manager is always promising bonuses to his subordinates that don’t belong to the union, like supervisors. He’ll say, “Look, last year you produced 1,000 (for example). But if this year you produce 1,200, I’ll pay you a bonus.” So those people don’t give a damn about quality and hygiene. They push the workers to the maximum, but still, due to the condition of the machines, they cannot reach these numbers. In the end the supervisors resign, because the plant manager does not fulfill his promises.
It has turned into a vicious cycle of corruption.
How did the coronavirus crisis come to Cargill?
The coronavirus found Cargill already in crisis.
The company does not comply with sanitary habits. There are very few bathrooms, and they’re in terrible condition — they look like latrines and are generally damaged. People can’t even find toilet paper to clean themselves. It’s demeaning.
Sanitation workers need hot water, which means they need boilers. But those boilers don’t work; they’re all obsolete, and the company doesn’t want to spend money to replace them. So the sanitation workers just wash everything with cold water and add more chemicals.
Also, the company uses an ammonia refrigeration system, which compresses gas to change the temperature in the building. I listened to the people who came in to do an inspection, and they were horrified. When they approached the area where the connections were, they got scared and said, “You couldn’t even fit another patch on this.” The connection has leaks, but again the company won’t fix it, because it would be very expensive to make everything new.
Every day the situation becomes more serious here. In the building, there are partitions — between shipping and production, for example, and between the wet part of production and the dry part — but in reality the building is only one space. About thirty big ceiling fans move the air around. If someone sneezes, the movement from those fans can carry the germs everywhere in the building, distributing the virus that way.
For the company, the conditions that exist here are normal. That’s what scares me. And it’s going to get worse. What is happening at Cargill is very dangerous.
How has the company responded to the situation?
The company withheld information about the coronavirus, so much so that a manager prohibited us from wearing masks because he said that we were panicking other workers.
When this all started, I didn’t know anything. March 14 [when Governor Tom Wolf announced schools would close for at least two weeks] was when the pandemic really started in Pennsylvania. There was a lot of confusion in the following days, as people began to miss work because they had a strong “flu” and fever. The human resources staff, upon learning what was going on, took their laptops and went home. But the company did nothing. On the contrary, it forced the production staff to work for seven days straight, as if nothing was going on.
I saw people on the floor with symptoms of a strong flu and fever, but they kept working so as to not receive any more points against them. [According to the agreements made between the company and the union, workers receive a single point for each missed shift for which they give prior notice and three points for each missed shift with no prior notice. Workers are terminated after they accumulate ten points.]
Two new workers in the mechanics department began saying, “Hey, there are these rumors that workers have COVID-19. What are you [the company] doing? Nobody tells us anything.” So that Thursday, March 19, the company said, “Just in case anyone has any questions about the rumor that someone has the virus, we’re telling you that it is completely false. The hospital has announced to us that there weren’t any contaminated people here.”
I said to myself, “Wow. The hospitals don’t have the results even after ten days, because according to the governor those tests are sent out of state, but somehow Cargill already knows.” Right then and there, I drew the conclusion that the company was lying to force us to continue working. On Monday, March 23, the company made an agreement with the union: to get workers to keep working, they increased pay by two dollars an hour. That led me to draw the conclusion that they already knew what was happening and yet they said nothing.
On Tuesday, March 24, they confirmed the first case [at the plant]: it had been a lady in shipping. On Thursday, March 26, a colleague of mine came down with a fever. The next day, two more colleagues were also sick. The nursing department took the step of starting to check people’s temperatures — so much so that all the nurses fell ill. The nurses sent almost everyone home, so there weren’t very many workers left.
Two supervisors, including the maintenance supervisor, fell ill and tested positive. By March 29, there were very few people in production and almost no one on the second shift. Of the twenty lines, only four of them were running during the first shift and only two during the second shift.
At that point, on April 7, the company claimed to shut down. They gave us all the big news: “We are closing Cargill.” Lies. They’re still requiring those of us in maintenance to work. And the company didn’t provide us with masks until after April 13, just the gloves we always wear.
Why do think you Cargill decided to make that announcement and “close” the plant?
There is a Hispanic community here, and almost 90 percent of the Hispanic population is Dominican. So there is a Casa Dominicana [community and workers’ center] here. The president of this Casa had been receiving a lot of complaints, not only about Cargill but other companies as well. He was motivated to do something because Cargill, Amazon, and American Eagle [all tenants of the Humboldt Industrial Park factory complex] are the three most labor-intensive companies around here.
English-speaking workers were also calling entities like the Departments of Agriculture and Labor, legislative representatives, the governor, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). I guess they managed to convince Cargill. But like I said, it’s not really closed: the maintenance department is still working, and the union hasn’t opposed it.
What will it take to resolve the situation in Hazelton?
One thing I admire about this country is that it has so many protocols. (If “a” doesn’t work, “b” will work, if “b” doesn’t, “c” will work, etc.) Now, at this moment, we’re all going to kill our children, our seniors, our population, by doing nothing? I can’t believe it. It can’t be possible.
I don’t agree with those who take the closing of plants or companies lightly. But in this case, they should close the plant completely, fumigate it, and start again with healthy workers, not sick ones. Little by little, we will reach 100 percent production again. What I want now is for the people who lead this company to have more humanity and respect for their workers. I want them to do the right thing.