Essential doesn't mean expendable

State Representative Ras Smith of Waterloo is among 20 Black Hawk County elected officials who urged Tyson Foods to suspend operations at its local pork processing plant. -promoted by Laura Belin

Across the country, we see “essential workers” as the people who keep us safe, treat the sick and injured, and maintain the systems that sustain us in difficult times. In the background, other essential workers toil in silence as they stock our shelves, clean our floors, as well as process, prepare, and serve our food. They are essential before, during, and after this crisis. 

At Tyson’s Fresh Meats in Waterloo, the employees I’ve talked to fear they’ve been placed in harm’s way, not because they are deemed essential, but because the facility has blatantly dismissed effective COVID-19 mitigation strategies that are supposed to keep them safe. Here’s what one employee noted:

“They are using a thermometer that is faulty and not sanitizing it in between checks. The thermometer is reading temps ranging 92 degrees F to 120 degrees F. Employees are still allowed to work with those readings. No extra cleaning measures have been put in place, we were not allowed to wear masks until April 13. People are not being advised of what is happening and non English speaking people are especially not being told what’s happening.” – Tyson Employee, Waterloo, Iowa

With the alarm bells beginning to sound about the consequences for food markets due COVID-19 outbreaks at processing plants around the country and in Iowa, most insidious are the ramifications on an already vulnerable workforce. In Iowa and many states with large processing plants, a large portion of employees are from underserved communities and immigrant populations. 

Per capita, Iowa ranks first in the nation for the highest employment in the meat processing industry. Minnesota ranks second at nearly half the state density of animal processing. On average, these workers earn just under $33,000 per year, far below the national average for full-time wage earners. 

In addition to low wages, national studies show that as many as 50 percent of individuals who die from complications due to COVID-19 are from communities of color. Members of the Hispanic/Latino community account for 19.3 percent of Iowa’s confirmed cases of COVID-19, the latest official figures show. (The state has not released demographic information on Iowa deaths.)

The reality is the COVID-19 crisis we face today not only increases the risk to an already vulnerable population, but also threatens our health care system, which has been teetering on the brink of collapse for years, especially in rural areas.  

Looking at the data, we might be tricked into thinking that the solution to such a complex problem must itself be complex, but the answer is responding to a simple question. Do we see the individuals themselves as essential, or just their job? 

Common sense dictates that if your essential workforce is also among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, an employer would take every precaution to protect employees from contracting the virus.

The opposite is true, according to accounts from my family, friends and neighbors working at the Waterloo Tyson facility. Managers putting water in hand sanitizer stations. Workers coming from another plant closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak without being tested. Social distancing only being practiced during break times. These factors and more are leading to an exponential spread of the virus in our community.

So far, Governor Kim Reynolds and Tyson leadership have failed to hear the voices of these people and take serious action to help protect workers in one of the state’s largest and most diverse communities. I was stunned to hear the governor admit during her April 17 press conference that she has not even talked to workers on the front lines at Tyson to hear their concerns. 

At a time when our focus should be on remembering that the most essential thing is our human value, the lack of significant and effective action by the state and corporate leaders suggests that the value of the dollar is worth sacrificing the safety of workers. 

For my community of Black Hawk County, I fear it’s too late to be proactive. Our focus must shift to on minimizing further spread and loss of life.  We all need to ask our governor to step up oversight at processing plants and hold employers accountable if their safety practices risk the health and safety of thousands of Iowans and jeopardize the future of Iowa’s agriculture economy. 

Our response to this pandemic must elevate the social status of our front-line employees, from “less than” to equal. Our commitment to drastically improving their wages and workers’ compensation and reforming their workplace conditions during the rebuild following the pandemic will indicate whether our frontline workers are essential or expendable. 

Editor’s note: On April 18, the author, State Representative Timi Brown-Powers, and State Senator Bill Dotzler filed an workplace safety complaint against Tyson Fresh Meats with the Iowa Division of Labor OSHA Enforcement Division.

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