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Nonmetro employment, Covid-19, and meatpacking

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May 19, 2020

Rural or nonmetro areas did not rebound from the 2008-09 recession as fast as urban or metro areas. Employment fell five percent in both rural and urban areas between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009. By 2019, rural employment had not yet returned to its 2007 levels, while urban employment was 10 percent higher than in 2007.

The urban unemployment rate peaked at 9.7 percent in 2010, and fell to 3.9 percent in 2018, while the rural unemployment rate peaked at 9.2 percent and fell to 4.2 percent in 2018.

Nonmetro counties had 46 million residents in 2018 or 14 percent of the 327 million US residents. Completely rural counties lost people between 2010 and 2018, as deaths outnumbered births and net migration was negative. Slow-growing or declining populations slowed the recovery of jobs in rural areas.

The labor force participation rate, the share of persons 16 and older who are employed or looking for work, is higher in urban than in rural areas. The LFPR was 64 percent in urban areas in 2018 and 58 percent in rural areas. People living in rural areas are older, and a higher share are retired or disabled.

Manufacturing is relatively more important in rural counties. About 14 percent of rural jobs are in manufacturing, 2.5 million in 2015, versus seven percent of urban jobs. Many rural counties in the eastern half of the US lost manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2015.

Meatpacking is the most important manufacturing industry in rural counties, and emerged as a hotspot for coronavirus in April-May 2020. Over half of the meatpacking establishments, and three-fourths of meatpacking employment, was in 1,400 nonmetro counties in 23 states in 2000, suggesting that the meatpacking plants in the Midwest and south are larger than those elsewhere in the US.

Meatpacking was considered an essential business during the coronavirus emergency, so most animal dis-assembly plants continued to operate. Some workers staged protests, alleging that the plants placed employees too close together, facilitating the spread of the virus. Unions called on meatpackers to slow line speeds so that workers could be spaced further apart.

Almost 60 percent of employees at a Tyson plant in Perry IA, and a third at a Tyson plant in Waterloo, IA, tested positive for Covid-19 in April-May 2020. The UFCW reported that at least 30 meatpacking plants closed at some point in April-May 2020 due to Covid-19.

The US has 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses, but the largest 50 account for most US meat production, including 15 that process 60 percent of US pork. Many meatpacking workers are immigrants who live in crowded housing, so that virus outbreaks can spread quickly in families that include a meatpacking worker.

Most of the plants owned by Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods have over 500 employees and are not required to offer paid sick leave. Nonetheless, some began to offer paid sick leave, and some offered bonuses of up to $500 a month to employees who did not miss any work.

President Trump in April 2020 signed an executive order that deemed meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure.” This makes federal authorities responsible for worker safety in meatpacking plants, and bars suits from workers who contract the virus at work. Unions wanted meat processors to test all workers before reopening closed plants, but Trump’s order allowed the plants to reopen without testing workers.

Americans eat twice as much meat per capita as Europeans; per capita consumption is higher only in Argentina. Meat costs 20 to 30 percent less in the US than in Europe. Covid-19 may raise the cost of processing meat and accelerate automation in meatpacking plants.

By 2018, employment in rural counties was not yet back to 2007 levels

Rural adults have less education and more disabilities than urban adults


Manufacturing employment is relatively more important in rural counties, and declined fastest in southeastern US rural counties since 2000


Metro counties have 50,000 or more people; nonmetro or rural counties have fewer than 50,000 residents


Meatpacking was up to half of county employment in 1,400 nonmetro counties in 2000; counties with more than five percent of employment in meatpacking are in red


Many counties with large meatpacking plants (black dots and triangles) saw sharp increases in Covid-19 cases in late April and early May 2020


BLS-OES reported 78,000 slaughterers and meat packers (SOC 51-3023) earning a median #13.40 per hour in May 2017 (dark green areas have the most meatpacking employees)