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Covid-19 and Meatpacking

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June 24, 2020

Meatpacking was considered an essential business during the coronavirus emergency, and most animal dis-assembly plants expected their employees to continue to work. Meatpacking plants, nursing homes, and prisons were three hotspots for US Covid-19 infections.

About 75 percent of US meatpacking workers are represented by unions, which called on meatpackers to slow line speeds so that workers could be spaced further apart. Some workers staged protests, alleging that the plants placed employees too close together to prevent the spread of the virus. The United Food and Commercial Workers union reported that 10,000 meatpacking workers contracted Covid-19 in April and May 2020, and 35 died. Other estimates were that over 20,000 workers meatpacking workers had been infected and 65 died.

The US has 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses. The largest 50 account for most US meat production, including 15 that process 60 percent of US pork. Most of the pork 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.

Tyson, JBS and Smithfield closed 15 plants in April 2020, reducing the US pork supply by a quarter. Tyson closed its largest pork plant in Waterloo, IA after almost 30 percent of the 2,700 employees tested positive for Covid-19. Smithfield Foods closed its 3,700 employee Sioux Falls, SD plant that processes 19,500 hogs a day after over 500 workers tested positive; 30 percent of Covid-19 cases in SD were linked to meatpacking plants. Smithfield, which employs 40,000 workers in the US, was bought by China’s WH Group Ltd in 2013 for $4.7 billion. South Dakota was one of five US states that did not issue stay at home orders during the pandemic.

President Trump in April 2020 signed an executive order that deemed meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure,” which made federal authorities responsible for worker safety in meatpacking plants and barred suits from workers who contract Covid-19 at work. Unions asked meat processors to test all workers before reopening their closed plants. Trump’s order allowed the plants to reopen without testing workers, but many plants nonetheless tested returning workers.

Most meatpacking plants reopened after deep cleanings at slower line speeds, so that there were too many hogs for meatpackers to process, prompting hundreds of thousands to be gassed rather than turned into meat. Piglets become market-ready after six months, when they weigh about 300 pounds. Large hog farms are constantly raising new piglets, so they have little extra space to hold market-ready hogs that cannot be processed.

Average QCEW employment in US food and beverage manufacturing was 1.7 million in 2018, including almost 30 percent in NAICS 3116, animal slaughtering and processing. BLS reported 4,100 establishments in NAICS 3116, average employment of 520,000, and total wages paid of $21.7 billion in 2018, for average weekly wages of $800. There were 4,000 establishments with average employment of 494,000 and total wages paid of $15.6 billion in 2009, for average weekly wages of $610. Meatpacking employment rose five percent and weekly wages rose 31 percent between 2009 and 2018.

Almost half of meatpacking employment is in NAICS 311615, poultry processing. There were 733 poultry establishments with average employment of 240,000 that paid $8.5 billion in 2018 for average weekly wages of $685, up from 700 establishments with average employment of 230,000 and total wages of $6.2 billion in 2008, for average weekly wages of $520. Poultry employment rose four percent and weekly wages rose 32 percent between 2009 and 2018.

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

Meatpacking accounted for 30 percent of the average employment of 1.7 million in food and beverage manufacturing in 2018

Poultry processing accounts for almost half of meatpacking employment (NAICS 3116)

Meatpacking workers often stand close together in cold areas