While in my junior year of high school, I once asked my mother if she could tightly braid my hair down the middle in two sections like she did when I had been in grade and middle school. She looked down at her hands. She closed and opened them, then looked directly at me and shook her head no. My mother’s hands are small, to begin with. Still, after the labor her hands had been through cutting meat and tightly gripping a knife at a processing plant, she was left with limited flexibility and strength in both hands. My parents, brother, and extended family members are just a few people I know who have spent their days either sawing a large and heavy animal apart, slicing meat at a long table as fast and accurately as they can, packing and lifting boxes, supervising various lines on the floor to make sure the process is running smoothly, or enduring other labor-intensive work.
The summer after graduating high school, I had the opportunity to work as an assistant in the human resources department at a local beef plant in Tama, Iowa. While I had heard stories from both my parents about what goes down in a plant, I had never seen a plant in person. I remember the first day of training; I dressed in my long, white robe, yellow boots, and hard hat to walk inside the plant where all the hard work happens. Inside, you might feel very hot or very cold depending on the type of meat the plant processes—beef, pork, chicken, turkeys, etc.—and which part of the process you’re working on, which dictates your environment. For the most part, the hot side is the “kill floor,” which is where the animal is killed, deblooded, cleaned up, and cut up into individual pieces. On the cold side, also known as fabrication or production, people work with frozen pieces of meat to cut them further, debone them, and remove excess fat. On the same side, away from the rest of the production lines, you’ll find workers packaging the meat that’s ready to be sent off.
I vividly remember walking in the cold side of the plant and being in awe of the long lines where people were hard at work cutting up meat at a rapid pace. While staring at the workers, I almost slipped walking across an aisle and I immediately thought to myself, “I could’ve easily gotten sliced or bumped into someone else and caused a whole ordeal.” I also remember seeing my dad for the first time doing what he’s been doing for over 20 years—supervising workers in his designated area—which means making sure that the product is being handled correctly as it’s trimmed to specific measurements for retail. We had made direct eye contact, and he proudly waved at me.
During these few months, I noticed how seriously many of the individuals working in these plants took their jobs. The majority of them were, and are, immigrants of color. People clocked in from before 6AM until 6PM each evening. Each person, no matter what area they worked in, took the precautions necessary for starting in their department, which meant dressing up in appropriate attire to protect their own bodies and the meat, including but not limited to a hard hat, long robe, clean gloves, boots, and a hair net or bandanna. Each piece of the attire also had to be washed and sanitized (or for gloves, thrown away) before entering and leaving the cold or hot side.
As an assistant, most of my job meant helping people fill out the necessary paperwork needed, including using my Spanish for translation purposes, which was often. While I knew my work in the office was nothing compared to their labor, I felt I could navigate them through the workforce system, which includes complicated things like health insurance, paid time off, maternity leave, or other important policies. While I did this work, I became attached to the people and the stories they shared, from funny incidents to their stressful and challenging experiences within the plant.
Fast forward to early 2020, when the first of many coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants occurred in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at Smithfield, I immediately thought of the safety of the workers—especially of those in my community just an hour west in Worthington, Minnesota. Even though I haven’t set foot on the floor of a plant since 2016, I started to question what protocols were being developed to protect workers. What did multilingual communication look like to get the messages across? How were workers handling the situation? What tangible resources would employees receive as “essential workers”?
In the beginning days of the pandemic, my family members shared the stories of those at the plant who were scared of getting sick. Some ended up quitting out of the fear of being infected by a virus with no research behind it and no cure. Others stayed and lived in fear of what the coronavirus could do to them and their families, many of whom are more vulnerable to exposure because of living situations and cultural customs like living in multigenerational homes. Our immigrant families have, no doubt, been the hardest hit.
Early on, many plants also didn’t have protocols to protect their workers from COVID-19, which left many of their workers infected with the virus. In April 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to order meat processing plants to stay open as a critical infrastructure (CDC). Regardless of individuals being scared out of their lives, they were asked to return to work immediately after that.
Locally, organizers from within and outside the city advocated for workers by speaking with them about their experiences within the plant. Stories shared by employees helped organizations like Minnesota OSHA investigate how the plants were not adequately protecting employees. The added pressure from individuals and organizations within the state made a difference, spurring the plant to enforce more protocols to ensure workers’ safety through easier access to COVID-19 and antibody testing, checking symptoms and temperatures each day at the entrance, mandating that workers wear PPE, facilitating social distancing as much as possible both on and off the floor, and more. While these measures are necessary, they can also make the work environment more strenuous: Imagine having to work in extreme temperatures with double or triple PPE covering your face and body. One clear advantage we’ve seen for plant workers is easier access to COVID-19 and antibody testing, and soon enough they’ll have access to the vaccine.
The CDC defines a meatpacking plant essential worker as someone who must head to work each day during the pandemic to ensure food gets to the table of families across the country and globe. While each plant has its incentives like hazard pay to bring people back to work and keep them working, those incentives do not add long-lasting benefits for those risking their lives every day.
Way before the coronavirus pandemic, I saw immigrants getting up before sunrise to get to work on time and working five to seven days straight in labor-intensive jobs because they were in desperate need of money to keep their families financially afloat. The negative impacts on the body and state of mind come whether one works in this environment pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, or well after the pandemic. While precautions to keep workers from getting COVID-19 at the plant are a start, it’s not enough to focus short-term on one single aspect of workers’ health. In meat processing work, mental health has always been affected due to the experiences inside the plant, from the dangerous work to the harsh conditions. With COVID-19, many employees have seen an increase in individuals suffering from mental health issues, which leads them to ask for time off or come into work irregularly.
During the pandemic, many organizers have repeatedly said the inequities in mental health care, child care, education, and in other areas are showing up even more vividly in low-income, brown, and Black communities. My mother may no longer braid my hair, but she continues to use her body for physical labor in her current work as a hotel housekeeper. She’s been out of the meatpacking industry for a long time, but I think about her, my family, and all of the community members who will bear a heavy physical and emotional toll currently and for years to come. For their sake, I ask those in local, state, and national leadership roles to create a space where they can listen to those who are on the floor of the plants, not just those in offices who speak English well, but to truly listen to those who are being directly impacted physically and emotionally, regardless of language and cultural barriers. Not only do essential workers deserve to be heard, but they also deserve tangible action like implementing adequate wages, benefits that support chronic pain and other disabilities, including mental health support long-term, and even a path to citizenship. Nothing less will honor the work and the lives of the people who’ve risked so much in this pandemic, and before.