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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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Building Power And Raising Voices Of Rural Women

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Here in North Carolina, like many other rural areas around the country, reactionary forces have used trends like the decline of jobs, infrastructure, and public services to consolidate power, advance racist and misogynist narratives, and erode public confidence in the power of government to work for the common good.

The impact is real: every day, people in rural areas of North Carolina get sicker, die sooner, and have less access to what they need to thrive than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

Women in rural communities are most affected by these crises. And we are uniquely positioned to be a key part of the solutions.

For rural women in Appalachia, life is a juggling act of caring for family, friends, and community. The many different roles that rural women play in their communities and organizing spaces can be woven together like the quilts that have been beautifully crafted by the women before us. For as long as I can remember, my Nana and Granny and Mimi and all the women in my life have been the pillars that hold up their loved ones and hold folks together — raising the children, keeping everyone fed and clean, and carrying the traditions of our history.

In the past decade, the right wing capitalized on a void in North Carolina left by the lack of progressive investment in rural and small-town communities. Where progressive organizing might have offered working-class residents of rural counties opportunities for engagement, white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups stepped in. Today, progressive community organizing led by rural women is emerging as a tool to keep one another alive through times of desperation and struggle.

Down Home North Carolina, part of the People’s Action network and a founding member of the Rural Women’s Collaborative: Uniting Across Race and Place for Racial and Economic Justice, is organizing working people to grow democracy and improve the quality of life, so that our grandbabies inherit a state that is healthy and just. We are shifting what’s possible in rural America by building the feminist leadership of rural women and promoting values of inclusion in communal life, interdependence, care for the elderly, love of earth and humanity, dignity of all work, and protection of the vulnerable.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. What I have noticed from the rural women in my life is that they come together as a village to care for one another. They know what it means to be stronger united, to put their brains and bodies together to do what needs to be done to keep moving forward with all the weight that they are carrying.

In the 1970s, the women of Harlan County catalyzed the multi-gender, multi-racial solidarity and civil action that won recognition for striking coal miners. In the 1960s, it was Ollie Combs, a rural woman, who laid her body on the line in front of a bulldozer to save the foundation of her family’s livelihood and led to the first stripmining legislation. It was rural women like Judy Bonds who risked everything to pioneer the fight against mountaintop removal.

Today in Down Home Alamance County, the story of our rural women looks like Robin Jordan, who lost her daughter in 2018 because she didn’t have access to the healthcare that she desperately needed. Robin fights to protect families across North Carolina from experiencing the loss that she had to go through, while she — like many rural women I know — raises her granddaughter.

In Down Home Jackson County, the rural women’s story looks like Kellie Smith, who still has her waitress apron tied around her waist from working her 8th shift trying to catch up on rent after relentlessly searching for jobs in a depleted market for months, but who shows up anyways because there’s nothing left to lose and “we can’t afford to keep sitting around not doing anything.”

The story looks like Carrie McBane, who despite facing the views against her as an “outsider” for the brown hue of her skin, still pushes against the struggle to communicate with her neighbors and to build bridges across her community because “we are all stronger when we work together.”

In Down Home Haywood County, the story of rural women is painted by Natasha Bright, who brings her two kids with her to organizing meetings after spending a whole day working full-time to support her family and her husband, who is a veteran. Natasha, who doesn’t have health care for herself, fights for her community because “no one is going to fight for us.”

Building on these legacies, our Radical Hope Fund grant has allowed us to invest in the feminist leadership of a multiracial cohort of rural women to lead transformative campaigns bridging urban and rural communities across race and gender, while restoring democracy, confronting corporate abuse, and helping build models of community control of the economy.

Rural women have served as the educators, healthcare givers, nurturers, and fighters for our community for generations. Now the women of Down Home are carrying forward this torch.

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Blog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, connection, and healing.This piece was published by the AFL-CIO on December 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 


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Trump targets USDA with some of the deepest proposed budget cuts

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President Donald Trump ran on a platform of giving a voice to rural voters who felt forgotten by politicians in Washington. But his proposed budget, released on Tuesday, proposes deep cuts to crucial Department of Agriculture programs that many rural residents, and farmers, depend on.

The budget proposes an almost 21 percent cut to the USDA, the third-largest percentage cut proposed for any agency, behind the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. It would cut crop insurance?—?which pays farmers for losses due to extreme weather, or compensates farmers for loss if prices are higher than guaranteed at the time of harvest?—?by 36 percent, far deeper cuts than were proposed under the Obama administration. And it proposes to “streamline” conservation programs, while eliminating the rural development program aimed at bringing infrastructure, technology, and utilities to rural communities.

“The Budget Proposal guts the USDA by 21 percent and makes further cuts to programs, all of which will leave rural and urban farmers, low-income families, and taxpayers more vulnerable,” Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an emailed statement.

The proposed budget zeroes out programs like the USDA’s Farm Safety program, which seeks to reduce farm sector injuries by training workers in how to properly use farming equipment. It also eliminates programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s watershed protection projects, which helps both protect sensitive watersheds from environmental degradation, like soil runoff, and helps rural communities respond to natural disasters like floods.

“Agriculture is a risky business, and we absolutely need an adequate safety net for farmers while also providing incentives that will accelerate adoption of conservation practices,” Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress via email. “Eliminating any program that helps farmers increase resiliency and protect natural resources is a shortsighted decision that can have harmful consequences.”

Key research programs aimed at helping farmers adapt to the changing climate?—?like programs that offer grants to farmers interested in experimenting with innovative conservation techniques?—?would also face deep cuts under the proposed budget. More than $33 million would be cut from agricultural research programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides grants for agricultural sciences, and the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), which helps farmers fund conservation projects.

“The budget would slash funding for key agricultural research and conservation programs, undermining the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future,” Lavender said.

Cuts to USDA research programs would hardly be the first time the Trump administration showed science to be a low priority for the agency. Trump is expected to name Sam Clovis, a conservative talk-show host that denies the scientific consensus on climate change, to be the USDA’s undersecretary of research, education and economics. That would put Clovis in charge of the USDA’s entire scientific mission, including research programs aimed at helping farmers respond to climate change. Current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also denies the scientific consensus on climate change, calling climate science “a running joke among the public” in a 2014 op-ed published in the National Review.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Trump budget does not specify what will become of one of the Obama administration’s signature climate-focused programs within the USDA, the regional climate hubs, which connect farmers with on-the-ground information about climate science and adaptation in their region. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney did say on Tuesday, however, that the budget at large was aimed at decreasing the “crazy” climate spending of the Obama administration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress.org on May 23, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at [email protected]


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