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How the Covid Land Rush Is Hurting New Farmers

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The pandemic has inspired city dwellers and investors to buy land in rural areas. That’s driving up farmland prices and pushing some beginning farmers out of the market.

Abel Dowden, age 20, grew up on his family’s beef farm in the Missouri Ozarks. He just got married and is ready to start his own farm. Dowden had his eye on a neighboring place but he is a day late and a dollar short. Over the span of the last year, the price of the adjoining property has tripled. Since Dowden can’t afford the new price, the landowner decided to hold on to it until the right buyer comes along.

What caused this rapid spike in land value? Who will the right buyer be?

The data is still being analyzed but already agricultural economists across the country have noticed a marked increase in agricultural land value caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this new market, locals looking for their retirement property and out-of-staters looking for some peaceful country living or an easy investment compete with, and often out-compete, new farmers.”When newcomers move in and take that land out of production, they actually threaten rather than boost the rural economy.”

During the pandemic, federal stimulus money has poured into rural communities in the form of small business assistance, farm aid, unemployment benefits and income-based payments. While the money has helped some scrape by this year, it has left others with cash on hand they wouldn’t otherwise have. Levi McDaris, a commercial banker in the Missouri Ozarks, says that in his area many people are turning around and putting that money into land, driving up demand and prices.

At the same time, the uncertainty of Covid-19 prompted investors to seek out stable investments in an otherwise turbulent market. Ag land?—?known for steady, reliable returns?—?has long been a go-to investment for large firms but this last year also saw new people investing in land, says Ray Massey. Massey is an ag economist at the University of Missouri Extension which conducts an annual survey of the ag-land market. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates low to encourage investment, which has made land purchases easier for individuals and investors.

Those individuals are not only rural people. As Covid-19 has redefined the limits of modern work, urban people have reconsidered city living. Nearly 40% of U.S. adults living in urban areas would consider moving to rural areas according to an April 2020 Harris Poll. Rural housing markets around the country have been blown apart by this sudden demand. In parts of rural California, for example, housing prices have increased by an average of 25% since the start of the pandemic. In the small city of Springfield, Missouri, about an hour West of where Dowden lives, housing prices have increased about 11% since May 2020. This demand extended to ag land, especially into what might be called recreational ag land: often hunting grounds or small 40-or-less-acre lots used for lifestyle farming. While the demand has mostly increased within an hour and a half of larger urban areas, this has also pushed up the value of ag land farther out. 

Since people looking for lifestyle or recreational properties ?“are willing to pay more than the agricultural value,” explains Wyatt Fraas, the farm and community assistant director at the Center for Rural Affairs, ?“all the surrounding ag land gets an increase in value.” The phenomenon has pushed up cropland prices across the U.S. in places like IowaOhio, and Missouri.

Not only has the demand for lifestyle properties pushed up the price of ag land, but non-farming people moving into rural areas have also quickened the development of ag land into smaller, lifestyle plots around rural towns. When media outlets hasten to characterize the flight to the country as a revitalization of rural America, they miss this important part of the picture. ?“When newcomers move in and take that land out of production, they actually threaten rather than boost the rural economy,” says Julia Freedgood, co-author of the American Farmland Trust’s Farms Under Threat report.

Small towns afflicted by the real crisis of business and youth-flight can benefit from the arrival of newcomers, but only when the influx does not come at the cost of ?“ag land being split up” and new farmers being driven out of the land market, says Fraas. He explains that while rural towns do need more families?—?for healthy schools, businesses, and communities?—?land developed outside of town is an economic hardship for small towns because it increases demand for services but not tax revenue. Farmland on the other hand, he said, ?“provides a lot of tax income as well as other economic income. Every farm is essentially a small factory that buys lots of goods and services.”

Moreover, in a world flailing in the fight against climate change, low-density rural development is significantly more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development, Freedgood explains. This is on top of the direct environmental destruction caused by such development, which breaks up animal habitats, damages watersheds and native ecosystems and, ironically, contributes to the spread of infectious disease.

Despite the economic and environmental costs to local communities, the Farms Under Threat report finds that between 2001 and 2016, nearly 7 million acres of farmland were converted to low-density residential (lifestyle) land use. 

And, of course, conversion into housing developments takes ag land out of the market and drives up land prices. The surging price may be good for landowners but it’s ultimately changing who can afford to become a landowner. Abel Dowden’s neighbor saw his property value triple, but this means Dowden, the new farmer, is unlikely to be able to buy his farm. 

Some of the factors driving up farmland prices?—?such as low interest rates and federal stimulus money?—?probably won’t last. The newfound interest in rural living, however, may stick around or even increase. Currently, about 42 million people—mostly in rural America—are without access to broadband internet. Businesses and families alike view poor broadband access as a major detractor of rural living; thus, broadband access is arguably a major factor limiting rural growth. In response, Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion for broadband infrastructure. As rural broadband access increases, more people may want to move to rural areas, buy land and build homes, further limiting the availability of affordable farmland. “The future of farming is not farm ownership because the cost of farm ownership is just getting too high.”

Land access is the number one challenge that young farmers and ranchers face, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, a network of young farmers fighting for the future of agriculture. As traditional farms and ranches continue to struggle with profitability, fewer and fewer retiring farmers are passing their land onto their children. Instead, their land enters the ag-land market, where it is difficult for new farmers to compete with industrial ag operations, investors, and developers. As prices go up, the imbalance of purchasing power intensifies. The Covid-19 uptick in prices and corresponding rise in investment and non-farming purchases is accelerating this long-running trend. Sadly, says McDaris, a banker who often works with farmers on getting loans, ?“the future of farming is not farm ownership because the cost of farm ownership is just getting too high.”

Independent family farms are the ?“key to maintaining a resilient farm sector and healthy rural communities,” reads one of the National Young Farmers Coalition guiding principles. In fact, small-scale farms are vital not only for rural communities but America’s food system at large. The pandemic made this point all too clear as industrial ag produced piles of pig corpses while people waited in line for hours in food bank lines where supplies were running short. The Young Farmers Coalition finds that not only is farmland overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of older farmers (according to the USDA, the average age of farmers is 57.5), 98% of farmland is owned by white people; it is imperative that new, young, diverse farmers replace aging farmers, not industrial ag behemoths. 

Some states have policies meant to address farmland development and encourage transition to new generations of farmers. These policies can protect agricultural viability and use zoning laws to control low-density sprawl. For instance, under some state programs?—?which are fairly limited in Missouri but more prevalent in other parts of the United States?—?Dowden might be able to sell an agricultural conservation easement on the land in order to make up part of the higher price. This would help him with the purchase now and ensure that the land is not developed even after he is done farming. Some states have also implemented Farm Link programs that connect land seekers with landowners who want their land to stay in agriculture. If such a program was established in Missouri, it might help young farmers like Dowden gain access to farmland.

According to Freedgood, of the American Farmland Trust, there’s a lot of important work to be done on the local level. ?“Good rural planning is incredibly important,” she says. ?“Not just land use planning but comprehensive planning that supports agriculture and rural economies. If done well, not only will it protect the working landscape, it will enhance community resiliency and food security in the face of climate change.”

For now, beginning farmers like Dowden continue to face an uphill battle, only exacerbated by the Covid storm. McDaris, the Ozark banker, reflects?“It’s not that people wanted it to become this way, I think it’s just the unintended consequences of who we are and what we’ve done.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sadie Morris is a former In These Times editorial intern. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Culture and Politics at Georgetown University with a focus on political economy and the environment.


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How Cuts to Unemployment Benefits Will Hurt Rural People

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Aallyah Wright, Author at Mississippi Today

Republican governors in at least 22 states are ending federal unemployment assistance. The cuts will hit hard in rural areas and communities of color.

After Lisa Wilkinson, 54, got laid off from her factory job in December 2019, she knew it would be difficult to replace it. She’s older and lives in rural Tennessee, where work is scarce.

She immediately began her search, but in March 2020, Covid-19 forced employers to shut their doors.

She applied for state and federal pandemic unemployment and received $300 a week plus back pay in June 2020?—?a lifeline, she said in an interview. Several weeks later, the benefits ran out, and she still couldn’t land a job. Then, in the midst of that, Wilkinson, her 79-year-old husband and her 82-year-old mother contracted Covid-19.

Wilkinson recovered, but her husband and mother did not.

“If you’re not a saver, you lose everything you got. And if you lost a spouse or member in your family?—?last year, this year?—?it makes it worse,” Wilkinson said. ?“You have anxiety, depression … and thoughts of where your next meal is coming from.”

Wilkinson feared for her health and that of others if she entered the workforce, but she kept applying anyway, she said. To date, she has sought more than 300 jobs. Since January, she has recertified and reapplied for extended benefits at least three times. Her claim is still processing, she said.

Now, she’s waiting?—?on unemployment benefits or a job, whichever comes first.

“People are like, ?‘Jobs [are] out there, if you need ?‘em,’” she said. ?“But they’re not the ones trying to apply for ?‘em.”

In at least 22 states, the federal unemployment assistance Wilkinson is fighting to get is being retracted by Republican governors, who plan to end the pandemic-related aid as early as June.

The governors argue that the benefits discourage people from taking jobs. But economists say cutting off federal aid affects people’s livelihoods?—?especially for people of color and residents of rural areas saddled with slow job growth, lackluster transportation options and limited opportunities.

“We know [communities of color in rural areas] suffer from chronic high unemployment and have been really hurt by the pandemic, so I do think that this is an issue that’s gonna be hitting different communities harder,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning independent think tank.

“We saw in the data that African Americans are really taking advantage of these programs,” he said, ?“and they’re going to be hurt by the revocation of some of these programs. I would say economic distressed communities, writ large, are going to be losing out on a lot of these benefits.”

About 16 million people nationwide would receive a total of $100 billion in benefits if all states continued federal unemployment funds through their set expiration date of Labor Day, Sept. 6, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data by The Century Foundation. Of the states that planned to pull benefits, almost $11 billion in unemployment benefits could be lost, affecting nearly 2 million workers, the analysis found.

States have never before made this reversal?—?accepting the federal funds, then turning them down?—?Stettner said.

Montana was the first state to announce it would end the program, on May 4, cutting off the benefits June 27. Other states followed suit, including Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. All are led by Republican governors. 

Focused on Vacancies

Economists told Stateline that the decision to opt out of pandemic unemployment affects the recipients who receive the funds, which in turn reduces the flow of money into local economies. 

Some Republican governors are focusing on filling job vacancies.

“Eliminating these pandemic programs will not be a silver bullet for employers to find employees, but we currently have about 116,000 available jobs in the state,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in a statement.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and President Joe Biden’s administration will ?“take concrete action to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks,” a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Labor said in a statement. The statement doesn’t specify whether states are required to continue providing payments, as some advocacy groups have argued the department could force them to do.

Some governors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?—?which also called for an end to the $300 weekly extended benefits?—?opposed the extra support because, they said, benefits would disincentivize people to go back to work in industries such as food service and hospitality.

However, there is no evidence that federal pandemic unemployment benefits had a substantial effect on employment after the $600 benefits expired in July 2020, according to a February 2021 study by a researcher with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

More than half of people who received a $600 federal unemployment check returned to work before the supplement expired, found a separate February paper from the University of Chicago Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

Many lawmakers’ views on the extended benefits fall along partisan lines.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it’s time for employees to work to bring the economy up to speed.

“The $300 federal supplement helped thousands of Arkansans make it through this time, so it served its purpose. Now we need Arkansans back on the job,” Hutchinson said in a May 11 statement.

Arkansas state Sen. Ron Caldwell, a Republican, told Stateline he agreed with the governor’s decisions to end the assistance early. Caldwell pointed to available jobs in the agriculture field in his state. People who are unemployed, but afraid of getting Covid-19, he said, have to ?“balance their fear of going to work.

“It’s not very fair for working class people to get up every day and people stay at home because they afraid to get sick,” Caldwell said in a phone call. ?“Teachers, first responders are going into the field. I know [Covid-19] is very real, but we can’t stick our head in the sand and continue on with people having grocery shelves stocked and other things that have to be done.” 

Across the aisle, Arkansas state Rep. Fredrick J. Love, a Democrat, said painting the community with a broad brush hurts households.

“In rural Arkansas, some [businesses] aren’t coming back. Some are permanently closed,” Love said. ?“If people qualify for pandemic unemployment, it’s apparent they were working before. I think they’re looking for work and can’t find it or it was less [money] than they were looking for.”

In Georgia, state Rep. Kim Schofield, a Democrat, said the responsibility rests in part on some employers who don’t pay livable wages.

“We need workplace salaries to match the 21st century workplace,” Schofield said. ?“There are larger companies who have made billions on the backs of workers. They can now give incentives back to workers, on-site child care, or raise some of the wages up to $15 and start there.” 

Although it’s challenging for smaller businesses to find employees, there isn’t a broad labor shortage, and people would go to work if jobs were available, said Wayne Vroman, an economist with The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy D.C.-based think tank.

Vroman added that the unemployment cutoffs put rural people of color at a larger disadvantage because they face higher unemployment rates. Although rural people don’t participate in unemployment programs as much, there are many who do, and if cut off from the benefits, would suffer, Vroman said.

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., said the true indicator of a labor shortage is rising wages, but there’s not accelerating wage growth across the board.

There is evidence, however, of a shortage in leisure and hospitality fields, he added.

“Wages in leisure and hospitality employment make up just 4% of all wages in the U.S. economy, so this is a very small portion of the economy where employers may be struggling to find folks,” Cooper said. ?“There’s no reason why difficulty for those employers should mean that we should turn off unemployment benefits for everyone.”

The industries experiencing shortages, such as leisure and trucking, don’t provide job security for workers, Stettner argued. Taking a ?“sledgehammer to the problem” by ending benefits won’t address deeper issues, he added.

Domino Effect

About 9.8 million working-age people don’t have jobs, even as the national unemployment rate is lower than last year. The rate stands at 6.1%, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, and only 19 states and the District of Columbia exceeded the national rate. This is more magnified for Black and Latino people, who face higher unemployment rates than white people, at about 10% and 8%, respectively.

Meanwhile, states’ troubled unemployment systems have been making headlines for months. Long wait times, website crashes and high traffic at call centers all contributed to barriers for people trying to navigate the unemployment system, according to New America, a public policy think tank.

And widespread unemployment fraud hurt all jobless residents in state after state: Maryland officials have frozen claimants’ accounts because of potential unemployment fraud. Residents in Colorado are struggling to verify documents through a new technology system designed to halt potential fraud.

Communities of color also may have a harder time getting approved for unemployment assistance. A July 2020 survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found that Black and Latino workers were underrepresented in unemployment benefits. Black and Latino workers made up about 40% of the unemployed nationally, but were fewer than 20% of the recipients, the poll found.

The racial disparities in unemployment programs have always existed, said Michelle Holder, an economist and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Since 1972, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first began collecting data on unemployment among Black Americans, the rate has been more often than not twice the amount as white unemployment, according to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Holder added that Black people tend to live in states where unemployment payments are lower.

“There’s already an imbalance,” Holder said.

And rural areas benefit the most from government programs because job growth is slower. Rural residents tend to be poorer, older, and lack transportation, access to the internet and health care.

Between 2010 and 2017, the yearly job growth for rural America was 0.5% compared with 1.8% in urban areas, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

The families hardest hit in rural areas face other hurdles, from food and housing insecurity to difficulties paying for utilities, health and child care, said Neil Sealy, executive director the Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots group that focuses on social and economic justice.

“This is a domino effect that affects people,” Sealy said. ?“Not having the money to survive will kick off a whole bunch of other things.”

This is why some grassroots organizers, economists and lawmakers insist that governors continue the assistance as well as administer unemployment programs more equitably.

“If we’re counting on the system to help the economy and help to reduce poverty,” said Stettner of The Century Foundation, ?“we cannot leave it to the states.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aallyah Wright reports on rural affairs and leads race and equity coverage for Stateline. Previously, Aallyah worked for Mississippi Today, a digital nonprofit newsroom covering K?12 education and government in the Mississippi Delta?—?her home region. As a member of the Delta Bureau, she investigated Mississippi’s teacher shortage, finding it was six times worse than in 1998 when the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to alleviate the crisis. She is a 2020 Mississippi Humanities Council Preserver of Mississippi Culture Award Recipient, 2019 StoryWorks Theater Fellow, and 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report. Wright graduated from Delta State University with a bachelor’s in journalism and minors in communication and theater. 


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Lawsuit over meatpacking worker’s COVID-19 death alleges truly grotesque abuses

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This is sickening. We’ve known that the meatpacking industry has acted with callous disregard for its workers’ lives in the coronavirus pandemic, keeping them on the job in unsafe conditions. But according to a lawsuit by the family of the late Isidro Fernandez, it’s worse than that. At the Tyson pork processing plant where Fernandez worked in Iowa, the family alleges, supervisors and managers placed bets on how many workers would get COVID-19.

That winner-take-all betting pool rooting against the health of workers in the plant was organized by one manager, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. Another manager called COVID-19 a “glorified flu” and “not a big deal,” and said “everyone is going to get it.” He did his part to make sure everyone got it, too, by at one point ordering a sick supervisor to skip testing and stay at work, because “We all have symptoms—you have a job to do.”

Managers offered attendance bonuses, giving sick workers an incentive to stay on the job, and lied about COVID-19 cases in the plant. At the same time, Tyson and other meatpacking companies were lobbying state governments as well as the Trump administration to get support in staying open and fending off lawsuits.

We shouldn’t have to hear about betting pools to understand how badly the meatpacking industry has treated its workers—its largely immigrant, vulnerable, underpaid workers. The numbers tell the story: tens of thousands of coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths, at a minimum, and lawsuits and complaints describing disgusting, unsafe practices in the plants. But when you think about it, it makes sense that the managers carrying out policies disregarding the health and safety of their workers and communities would also be putting that contempt into words directed at individuals. A policy that people should keep working even if they’re sick and pressure on individuals to skip testing and work sick go hand in hand. It’s not a giant step from taking it as your job to make people work sick and spread the virus to their coworkers to betting on how successful your push to infect large numbers of people will be.

And all of this was enabled by the Trump administration again and again, with top officials blaming workers for getting sick rather than pointing a finger at managers and forcing the companies to improve safety measures and, in case of serious outbreaks, shut down plants.

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on November 18, 2020.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos


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Meatpacking Workers Say Attendance Policies Force Them to Work With Covid-19 Symptoms

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In April, despite his fever, a meat­pack­ing work­er con­tin­ued to carve neck bones out of pig car­cass­es at a JBS plant in Iowa.

Two weeks lat­er, he would test pos­i­tive for COVID-19. But in the mean­time, he said, he kept clock­ing in because of a puni­tive atten­dance sys­tem wide­ly used in meat­pack­ing plants: the point system.

Under the pol­i­cy, work­ers usu­al­ly receive a point or points for miss­ing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.

For a few months ear­li­er this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods sus­pend­ed its point sys­tem, and Smith­field Foods said it has halt­ed its ver­sion for the time being.

How­ev­er, the point sys­tem has endured at Tyson and JBS plants through­out the pan­dem­ic, and it has con­tin­ued to coerce peo­ple with poten­tial Covid-19 symp­toms into show­ing up to work, said plant employ­ees, their fam­i­ly mem­bers, activists and researchers.

“Peo­ple are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfre­do, a machine oper­a­tor in a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, said through an inter­preter. He asked to be iden­ti­fied only by his first name out of fear of retribution. 

“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep work­ing,” he con­tin­ued. ?“If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Spokes­peo­ple for the country’s two biggest meat pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies said employ­ees are encour­aged to stay home while ill.

“Our cur­rent atten­dance pol­i­cy encour­ages our peo­ple to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symp­toms of Covid-19 or have test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mick­el­son said. 

“Regard­less of our atten­dance pol­i­cy, at no point dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have we assessed atten­dance points against team mem­bers for absences due to doc­u­ment­ed ill­ness,” JBS spokes­woman Nik­ki Richard­son said.

Still, the point sys­tem has like­ly con­tributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oli­va, co-founder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a non-prof­it that orga­nizes food indus­try workers.

“It’s prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter prop­a­ga­tors for the coro­n­avirus that we’ve seen,” he said. ?“It’s absolute­ly dis­as­trous to have a point sys­tem in the midst of a pandemic.”

Work­ers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home with­out penal­ty is if they test pos­i­tive for the dis­ease. They are required to go to work if they’re wait­ing for test results, they said. 

Once he test­ed pos­i­tive, the Iowa work­er, 50, was allowed to miss work with­out rack­ing up points, he said. He request­ed anonymi­ty because he fears los­ing his job.

Com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is that many work­ers strug­gle to access test­ing or avoid Covid-19 tests due to the cost, wait times and fear of being tar­get­ed by immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, work­ers and advo­cates said.

The point sys­tem varies from plant to plant.

At the JBS plant in Gree­ley, Colo., where about 300 work­ers have con­tract­ed the virus, employ­ees can rack up six points before they’re fired, accord­ing to a doc­u­ment shared by the local chap­ter of the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers union. 

At a JBS plant in Mar­shall­town, Iowa, it’s sev­en points, and at a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, where hun­dreds of work­ers have fall­en ill, it’s 14 points, accord­ing to screen­shots and pho­tos shared by meat­pack­ing work­ers in those plants. 

At the Tyson plant, the company’s gen­er­al atten­dance pol­i­cy notes that ?“approval of pre­arranged absences is based upon the busi­ness needs of the Com­pa­ny.” Even if work­ers give the plant prop­er noti­fi­ca­tion that they’ll miss a day, they receive a point, accord­ing to a copy of the atten­dance pol­i­cy.

Mick­el­son said the doc­u­ment did not accu­rate­ly reflect the company’s atten­dance pol­i­cy dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, as work­ers have been encour­aged to remain home if they’re sick. 

The point system’s enforce­ment can also depend on the super­vi­sor. They can bend the rules for employ­ees with whom they have a good rela­tion­ship, work­ers said.

While requir­ing employ­ees to wear masks and installing plas­tic bar­ri­ers between work­ers can reduce the trans­mis­sion of the virus, the dis­ease will keep spread­ing if plants don’t iso­late and quar­an­tine sick work­ers, said Shelly Schwed­helm, exec­u­tive direc­tor of emer­gency man­age­ment and bio­pre­pared­ness at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Med­ical Center.

To curb the virus’s spread, ?“get rid of the point sys­tem and don’t deter peo­ple from call­ing in ill,” she said.

After the Iowa meat­pack­ing work­er test­ed pos­i­tive, he stayed home for two weeks before return­ing to the plant. 

Dur­ing the day, he did jump­ing jacks in his base­ment in hopes of strength­en­ing his body enough to fight the virus and recit­ed gasp­ing prayers over the phone with his pas­tor. At night, he walked alone through his desert­ed neigh­bor­hood, wor­ried he wouldn’t wake up again if he fell asleep.

He said the com­pa­ny is ?“mak­ing us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life. They care more about the damn hogs than they do about people.”

New sys­tem for the pandemic

Before the pan­dem­ic, the JBS plant in Gree­ley allowed 7.5 points before a fir­ing. Now, it’s six, said Kim Cor­do­va, pres­i­dent of UFCW Local 7, the union that rep­re­sents the plant’s 3,000 workers.

“The atten­dance pol­i­cy became even more restric­tive,” she said.

Six work­ers died at the plant, mak­ing it one of the dead­liest pub­licly report­ed meat­pack­ing plant out­breaks in the coun­try, accord­ing to Mid­west Cen­ter track­ing.

Sick employ­ees can only recoup points at the Gree­ley plant if they have a doctor’s note and if they call into an Eng­lish-only atten­dance hot­line, a prob­lem for a work­force that speaks more than 38 lan­guages, Cor­do­va said.

To remove points from their record, work­ers must sub­mit to the union screen­shots of their call his­to­ry to the hot­line. Many work­ers find it to be a con­vo­lut­ed process, Cor­do­va said.

“They’ll give the point, and then the work­er has to fight to have it removed,” she said. ?“They make it real­ly dif­fi­cult to call in while sick, so work­ers are com­pelled to come into work even if they’re symptomatic.”

Richard­son, JBS’s spokes­woman, said their new point sys­tem is more for­giv­ing now because it allows work­ers to miss mul­ti­ple days in a row. The com­pa­ny reset all its employ­ees’ points to zero in late July, she said.

Tyson tem­porar­i­ly relaxed its point sys­tem in March but brought it back in June, even as case counts swelled.

The tim­ing of Tyson’s deci­sion was no coin­ci­dence, said Don Stull, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas who has researched meat­pack­ing for 35 years.

“As that ini­tial atten­tion being focused on the indus­try began to wane, they start­ed try­ing to run as near to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els as they could. So they need­ed as many work­ers as they could get,” he said.

Mick­el­son, Tyson’s spokesman, said Stull’s claim was not true.

Few oth­er opportunities 

Large meat­pack­ing plants are often in rur­al areas with­out many jobs oppor­tu­ni­ties. That leaves work­ers in a bind when deal­ing with the point sys­tem, work­ers and advo­cates said.

Eric Lopez, a sales man­ag­er at U.S. Cel­lu­lar, said his moth­er works at the JBS plant in Mar­shall­town. A Mex­i­can immi­grant with no for­mal edu­ca­tion who doesn’t speak Eng­lish, she had few jobs avail­able to her in Mar­shall­town oth­er than the pork plant, he said. 

She knows peo­ple with symp­toms have con­tin­ued show­ing up to work, he said, and it’s caused her to break down after com­ing home from work because she fears catch­ing the virus.

For decades, the meat­pack­ing indus­try has relied on immi­grant, minor­i­ty and poor work­ers, a demo­graph­ic that activists and researchers said the pri­mar­i­ly white meat­pack­ing exec­u­tives have exploited. 

“Com­pa­nies are run by old, white guys who think of work­ers as a piece of machin­ery,” said Joe Hen­ry, the polit­i­cal direc­tor for the League of Unit­ed Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens of Iowa, a His­pan­ic civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. ?“They see them as peo­ple with dif­fer­ent skin col­ors and dif­fer­ent lan­guages that they can just go ahead and treat like animals.” 

Tyson and JBS strong­ly denied this characterization.

“That is com­plete­ly untrue,” said JBS’s Richard­son, whose response echoed Tyson’s. ?“We have done every­thing pos­si­ble to both pro­tect and sup­port our team mem­bers dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Schlitz is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign where she stud­ies jour­nal­ism, glob­al stud­ies and East Asian lan­guages and cul­tures. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Heather report­ed on cli­mate change and the envi­ron­ment as a Dow Jones Data Jour­nal­ism intern at AccuWeath­er and has spent three years writ­ing about sci­ence news for the stu­dent news­pa­per and the Uni­ver­si­ty News Bureau.


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