Bloody Masks and Fevers on Shift: Immigrant Workers Face Abuse in Nebraska Meatpacking Plant
Last spring, as people across the globe raced to shut themselves indoors and shelter away from the threat of COVID-19, meatpacking workers in America suddenly found themselves exposed, vulnerable, and directly at the front line of the disease’s spread. By early April, the coronavirus was tearing through plants in states like Iowa, South Dakota, Texas, and Nebraska, infecting tens of thousands of mostly immigrant workers who’d been drawn to remote towns and cities by the meatpacking industry and its jobs.
Nervous health officials urged some hotspot plants to temporarily shut down, warning that crowded and enclosed processing rooms were vectors for the disease and were facilitating its spread into nearby communities. Recognizing the threat that the outbreaks posed to their operations – and their bottom line – some producers began implementing rudimentary protections for their workers including paid sick leave, on-site testing, and increased spacing on production lines.
Others, however, did little to protect workers, even after the scale of the danger they faced was obvious and undeniable. Noah’s Ark Processors, a plant operating in Hastings, Nebraska, is a glaring example of the dangerous and abusive treatment that meatpacking workers have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This week the ACLU filed suit against Noah’s Ark, alleging that the company pressures workers to remain on shift even when they become symptomatic, isn’t replacing blood-stained masks during their long shifts, has done nothing to facilitate social distancing inside the plant, and is failing to provide onsite testing to identify emerging infection clusters.
“Noah’s Ark has refused to implement even the most basic protections against a coronavirus surge in the plant,” said Spencer Amdur, an attorney at the ACLU. “At this point in the pandemic, there is no excuse for failing to do even the bare minimum to protect workers and the surrounding community.”
Alma was one of the workers on the production line at Noah’s Ark and is a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit. After emigrating from Cuba in 2012, she was hired to work in the plant a few years ago. It was a tough job. Her hands and wrists often ached from grueling hours spent on the “kill floor” – an enclosed room where cow carcasses are butchered and prepared for cold storage – but it paid decently. She and her husband Antonio, also a Noah’s Ark employee, were raising four children, and the family needed the money. (Note: the ACLU is using pseudonyms for them due to their fear of retaliation by management.)
Like many meatpacking plants, the majority of the plant’s workforce were immigrants, and Alma says that even before COVID-19 emerged she and Antonio were unsettled by the way management treated them. But things took a sharp turn for the worse when the pandemic began.
“People were scared, but [management] made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “The first thing they said was that nobody could miss work. They would say that [COVID-19] was just nonsense. Even when things got more serious, they didn’t care.”
Then, in late April, workers at the plant began to fall ill.
Antonio worked closely with a team of two other co-workers on the kill floor. During their shift, the three spent hours nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. After one contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized, it wasn’t long before Antonio also became symptomatic.
“I told my supervisor that my eyes were hurting and that I had symptoms that were getting worse, and he basically told me to f-off and go back to work,” he said.
Feverish and ill, Antonio went back to the line and finished his shift. But that night, he grew sicker. To make matters worse, Alma had also begun to feel unwell. Noah’s Ark wasn’t providing COVID-19 testing for its workforce, but fortunately for the couple, they had a contact in a local clinic and arranged for a test on their own. The results came back positive for both.
For weeks, the couple battled the virus at home, moving into the basement so they could limit contact with their children.
“It was really hard because the kids were just upstairs, but we couldn’t touch them,” Antonio said.
His case was worse than Alma’s. At one point, he developed shortness of breath and went to a local hospital, but staff there told him that resources were limited and they could only treat the sickest patients. In all, the pair were out of work for seven weeks at home while they fought to recover.
When they returned to Noah’s Ark, they discovered they were only going to be paid for two of the seven weeks they were sick, and at a lower hourly rate. Later, they’d discover that other workers hadn’t been paid at all for the time they spent at home sick.
Since they’d been out, Noah’s Ark had hired a nurse to perform cursory temperature checks of workers, but there was still no on-site testing, even as it became clear that people without fevers could spread the virus. Workers in the cramped, stuffy processing rooms were given masks – but only one per shift. When the masks became soiled with blood and sweat, workers were forced to pull them down below their noses so they could breathe, or take them off altogether. In the windowless cafeteria/break room, they squeezed together at small tables separated by thin, flimsy nylon barriers that provided little protection.
The virus continued to spread among the workforce at Noah’s Ark through April and May. Still, working conditions didn’t get better.
Alma says that managers continued to send a clear signal to sick workers that if they missed shifts their jobs would be at risk. At one point in late summer, a colleague of hers was instructed to stay on the line despite a rising fever. When the woman missed the following two days due to her illness, she was nearly fired. Alma managed to convince her manager to keep her on, but it was a warning to the rest of the workforce. An older worker, who Antonio was close with, died of complications related to COVID-19.
“They think that we are like slaves, not workers,” Alma said. “You aren’t allowed to get sick.”
Noah’s Ark has a record of failing to follow laws meant to protect workers. In October 2019, a district court in Nebraska found the company in contempt for failing to comply with an order to negotiate in good faith with a local meatpacking union. In its ruling, the court said Noah’s Ark had illegally attempted to block workers from joining the union as it sought to slash benefits and workplace safety protections. And federal regulators fined the company in 2019 and 2020 for not paying sick leave or securing dangerous equipment.
“What they’re interested in is money,” Alma said. “They want the factory to produce and they don’t care about the cost.”
Nine months into the pandemic, and in the midst of another alarming rise in infections and deaths, little has changed at Noah’s Ark. Employees working on the production lines and kill floor remain packed together in close quarters, the company still does not have a testing program in place, sick-leave policies have not been publicly posted, and workers are given only one mask per eight-hour shift, even when it becomes soaked in sweat and spattered with blood.
“Our lawsuit seeks to establish that Noah’s Ark – just like all other plants – needs to implement basic COVID protections: distancing, masks, sick leave, and testing,” said Rose Godinez, an attorney at the ACLU of Nebraska. “By refusing even these most simple protections, the plant is a public nuisance that threatens to spread the virus throughout Hastings and the broader Tri-City community.”
Godinez says she hopes the court will set standards that can apply to all meatpacking workers, adding that poor safety measures in the industry’s plants don’t just endanger those workers – they put the general public at risk.
In fact, an analysis by The Guardian found that nearly half the counties in the U.S. with the highest per-capita infection rates featured an outbreak related to a meatpacking plant. And cases in Nebraska are rising fast – on November 17, the state recorded its highest single-day positive case count since the start of the pandemic.
Despite the risks posed to the wider community by plants like Noah’s Ark, it’s been difficult for the public to understand where the worst hotspots have been, or to ensure that workforce outbreaks are addressed before they get worse. In May, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts announced that the state would cease providing the public with data on infection rates at specific plants.
The vast majority of workers in Nebraska’s meatpacking plants are immigrants, following a long history that began near the turn of the century with an influx of emigres from Europe. According to statistics released by Nebraska’s Department of Health in July, despite only comprising 11% of the state’s overall population, people who identify as Hispanic accounted for 60% of coronavirus cases in the state — largely due to meatpacking plants’ immigrant workforce.
“Prior to filing this lawsuit, we have advocated for workers at all levels of government, to no avail,” said Godinez. ”With both the private sector and our local, state, and federal officials refusing to enforce laws requiring a safe workplace, workers were forced to turn to the judicial system.”
Alma and Antonio worked at the plant through the start of Fall. But their working conditions continued to deteriorate. Antonio was eventually fired for missing a single day of work. A month later, Alma decided she had also had enough, and quit.
“There, holidays are not observed. When other companies aren’t working, this one has to work. There’s no law and order,” she said.
Both say they worry for the safety of their former co-workers at Noah’s Ark – who regularly update them on what’s been happening since they left – and are frustrated that federal agencies with a mandate to oversee meatpacking plants haven’t stepped in to help. Alma hopes her suit will hold the company’s owners accountable for their treatment of the plant’s workers during the pandemic.
“I hope things change and get better there,” she said. “Being an immigrant doesn’t make people animals. They are like you and me – they’re just trying to make a living.”