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May 2020, Volume 26, Number 2

Meat and Migrants

Some meatpacking plants closed in April 2020 due to workers falling ill to the coronavirus. Meatpacking workers often work alongside each other on dis-assembly lines, making it hard to avoid contact with fellow workers who may be ill. The $213 billion US meat industry had been expected to produce over 100 billion pounds of meat in 2020, over half beef and pork.

Work in meatpacking plants has often been done by workers with few other options, including recently arrived immigrants. Meatpacking jobs often involve cold temperatures, sharp equipment, fast-moving conveyor belts and hours standing, discouraging US workers with other job options from taking or staying in meatpacking jobs.

Tyson’s Manufacturing Automation Center in Springdale, Arkansas is developing labor-saving devices for the largest US meat processor. Machine vision provides details of animal carcasses as they move down the dis-assembly line, enabling protein suppliers such as Tyson to expand production beyond the record 100 billion pounds of red meat and poultry produced in 2019.

JBS USA is a subsidiary of the world’s largest meat processor, Brazil-based JBS, with 60,000 US employees. The US bought $67 billion worth of pork from JBS USA from the $28 billion fund established to compensate US farmers for the trade war with China, prompting complaints that US taxpayers were supporting a foreign meat company.

Rural America was hit hard by the coronavirus in spring 2020, as the coffee shops, schools and sports, and religious activities that forge social connections closed. Limited hospital capacity contributed to fears that, in the event of an outbreak, the virus could spread quickly.

Some media described a Great American Migration of 2020 as urban residents moved to less densely populated areas during stay-at-home periods. Many city residents moved to second homes in the country or in resort areas, prompting backlashes from local residents who feared that “virus refugees” may bring coronavirus to areas with limited hospital capacity. The experience of working remotely may encourage some temporary migrants to settle in rural areas.

Several states required arriving travelers from New York and nearby states to quarantine themselves for 14 days if they were staying in Alaska, Texas, and Rhode Island. States have broad powers to protect the health and well being of their residents, but may not discriminate against in-state and out-of-state residents, so that Alaska residents returning from New York must face the same quarantine rules as New York residents arriving in Alaska.