Maria cut chicken thighs shoulder to shoulder with co-workers who coughed and ran fevers.
The 33-year-old single mother from Mexico worked on a fast-paced line in one of America’s most dangerous industries. Meatpacking plants have long faced criticism for sacrificing worker safety in the name of efficiency and cheap meat. Injuries are common: Severed fingers. Chemical exposure. Back sprains.
But Maria, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of employment concerns, feared something worse while slicing a steady stream of carcasses in mid-April at the Mountaire Farms poultry facility in Siler City, North Carolina.
As the novel coronavirus invaded meatpacking plants across the nation, infecting dozens — then hundreds, then thousands — of workers, Maria said she feared for her life. Every time a colleague coughed, she said, she wondered if COVID-19 had found its way to Mountaire.
She worried about getting sick and dying, leaving her children without a mother. Maria said her plant supervisors wouldn’t talk about it. So she kept working.
By late April, the company confirmed at least 11 employees had tested positive for the virus. One of them was a co-worker, Maria said, who called her upset that she unwittingly passed the virus to her father and he died.
The meatpacking industry has evolved into a marvel of modern efficiency, producing 105 billion pounds annually of poultry, pork, beef and lamb destined for dinner tables across America and the world. That’s nearly double what it produced three decades ago.
But its evolution came at a cost. The same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases like the coronavirus: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocumented workers who share transportation and close living quarters.
“This pandemic is preying on decades of the fundamental arrangement of how we produce our food,” said Joshua Specht, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who studies the meat industry.
The meatpacking industry now faces perhaps its greatest test of worker safety, as the novel coronavirus continues to sweep through its slaughterhouses and processing plants.
As of May 20, officials have publicly linked at least 15,300 COVID-19 infections to 192 U.S. meatpacking plants, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 63 workers have died.
In April, USA TODAY found that 1 in 3 of the nation’s 405 largest meatpacking plants operated in a county with a high rate of COVID-19 infections. This week, the data shows that trend has expanded to more than half of those plants.
Companies including Tyson, Smithfield and JBS have implemented measures meant to reduce exposure, with many installing plastic sheeting between workers on the line, providing masks and face shields to employees and taking temperatures daily. Some have offered more generous sick leave.
“They’ve been impressed with how much we’ve done,” Tim Schellpeper, the president of JBS’ beef business, told the Austin American-Statesman about workers’ reaction to coronavirus-protection measures taken inside the company’s pork plant in tiny Cactus, Texas.
“It’s probably safer in these plants than it is in the communities,” added Shane Miller, senior vice president and general manager of beef enterprise for Tyson Fresh Meats in an interview with the Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Dozens of plants, including those owned by JBS and Tyson, have closed for days or weeks to slow or stop the spread of the virus.
When federal guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus in meat and poultry plants came out in April, “companies immediately worked those procedures, practices and methods into their processes,” said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute.
“And now we have CDC, USDA, OSHA, and the state and local officials working together to ensure that the facilities are doing everything possible to protect employees.”
But some say the measures are too little, too late in an industry where worker safety has always been at risk.
Rantoul Foods’ pork plant outside Champaign, Illinois, took some of the same precautions as Tyson, Smithfield and JBS and still succumbed to a coronavirus outbreak.
Prompted by complaints from plant workers, county health inspectors toured the Rantoul plant in late April and found employees standing shoulder to shoulder with no barriers or rushing in and out of break rooms. They crowded at sinks, which often lacked hot water. Many didn’t wear masks over their mouths and noses.
The plant, which at the time knew of just one COVID-19 case among its employees, responded to the findings by hiring one person per shift to ensure workers properly wore masks. It also adjusted people on the line to social distance, set up break rooms outside and staggered lunch and break times, according to an email a Rantoul executive sent to the health department.
It was not enough.
Since the inspection, at least 87 Rantoul workers have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s nearly a quarter of the cases in Champaign County, which had a total of 435 positive tests as of Wednesday, according to the state’s health department.
With an outbreak in progress, the plant then reduced line speeds to half capacity, according to a company statement. And Rantoul is “currently exploring the use of barriers between line employees to be in place before we ramp production speeds back up to previous levels.”
Even with those measures, it’s impossible for workers to stay far enough apart, said Julie Pryde, Champaign County’s health administrator. She’s increased her office’s efforts to respond.
The health department retrained all its Spanish-speaking employees to trace contacts among Rantoul’s heavily immigrant workforce. And it has hired translators for at least five languages, including Lingala, a French Congolese dialect, and Q’anjob’al, from Guatemala.
Carpooling workers and crowded living conditions factored into the virus’s spread, Pryde said. But so did the company’s labor practices: Without paid sick leave, workers who brought in little money continued showing up, she said.
“Someone brought it in,” she said. “With no infection control measures in place, it just took off.”
The warning signs were there for decades.
Worker advocates and government watchdogs have long cited endemic problems that thwart workplace safety. Among them: Workers are forced to slaughter and process animals at breakneck speeds. They get infrequent bathroom breaks. They crowd tight spaces. They are discouraged from taking sick time. They lack personal protective gear.
Despite these red flags, the industry has continued to operate with little safety oversight.
Federal authorities say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in charge of monitoring worker safety at meatpacking plants, but the agency has so far had a limited role. Most OSHA inspections are complaint-based, and government watchdogs have long noted a lack of injury and illness reporting among meat and poultry workers and their employers.
Despite publicized coronavirus outbreaks in at least 192 plants, OSHA has inspected four for COVID-19 safety violations, an agency spokesperson said. It’s received 48 complaints related to the coronavirus in meatpacking plants, the spokesperson said.
In the past three years, about 40% of meatpacking violations OSHA found resulted in no financial penalties. Among those that did result in fines, the average was $3,100 — a fraction of some companies’ multibillion-dollar annual revenues.
Even now, with the coronavirus raging through its plants, meatpacking companies are working with the federal government to stay open despite a chorus of complaints from critics saying companies value production numbers over worker safety.
At least 46 plants have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Some shut their doors for a day of deep cleaning. Others halted operations for weeks.
The closures precipitated a drop in production, sparking fears of national meat shortages and prompting the Trump administration to step in.
On April 28, President Donald Trump declared meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” and directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with companies to keep them open. Those that don’t cooperate face executive action.
The move met swift backlash from unions and labor advocates.
“Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protections is wrong and dangerous,” tweeted Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
The industry experienced a steady recovery from the end of April, when the number of cattle, hogs, and sheep being slaughtered was about 40% lower than the same time a year earlier, according to daily production data by the USDA. By this week it was still about 15% lower, however.
Specht predicted in April that the industry would choose production over worker safety.
“I suspected workers were going to be sacrificed to keep people eating their meat,” he said, “and that’s exactly how it played out.”
Like thousands of meatpackers across the country, Maria in Siler Citysaid she faced a choice: Risk her life for a job that pays the bills or quit to protect her children despite the loss of income.
Catherine Bassett, spokeswoman for the Mountaire Farm plant where Maria worked, said the company installed physical barriers between workers “by early April” and that masks were mandatory “before the CDC required it.”
But Maria quit on April 26, the day she said she learned of Mountaire’s COVID-19 infections.
“For two weeks, I didn’t hold my daughter,” she said of her toddler. “She would follow me and I felt very bad, but I told my two other kids to take care of her, play with her and keep her busy. I didn’t know if I had the virus.”
Even though she’s getting low on money, she said she won’t return to the line.
“We may be essential, but we’re also expendable,” she said. “If I get infected and I don’t go to work, the factory is not going to stop. There are many people out there that need the job as much as I do that can take it.”
Meatpackers haven’t always been expendable, low-wage employees, said Roger Horowitz, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the industry’s history.
In the 1950s, when most plants operated in urban areas and 9 in 10 meat packers belonged to a union, they earned wages above the national average for industrial workers. Turnover was low.
In 1950, the average meatpacking worker earned about $34,400 a year in today’s dollars, and providing paid sick leave was the industry norm, according to a Department of Labor study. Today, the average worker earns $29,600, with no paid sick leave, which has cultivated a culture of working while ill.
By the 1950s, the industry appeared to have moved beyond the horrors described in Upton Sinclair’s classic “The Jungle.” The 1906 novel shocked Americans with its depiction of how meatpacking plants exploited low-paid immigrants — mostly Eastern Europeans and Irish — exposing them to harsh conditions at barely livable wages.
But companies like Iowa Beef Processors, which Tyson Foods now owns, soon began moving their plants to rural areas nearer to feedlots and farms and with less union control.
By the 1990s only about 1 in 5 meatpackers belonged to a union, and Horowitz said wages had declined to 30% below the average for industrial workers.
At the same time, meat got cheaper. Beef prices dropped about 30 cents a pound from 1970, adjusted for inflation, according to USDA data. Pork prices fell about 65 cents a pound. Since 1980, chicken prices decreased about 45 cents a pound.
Companies benefited from technological advancements to build larger, more specialized plants to profit on economies of scale. To staff them, companies sought laborers who were willing to work for cheap and live in rural areas, according to a USDA study.
The industry returned to its reliance on immigrant labor, which had categorized its earliest days, Horowitz said, starting with people from Latin America and more recently shifting to refugees, especially from Africa. More than a quarter of all meat and poultry workers were foreign-born non-citizens in 2015, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Companies didn’t just attract immigrants. In some cases, they actively recruited them in search of a steady supply of unskilled labor.
The B.C. Rogers poultry processing plant in Mississippi used to fly one of its Spanish-speaking workers to border towns in Texas and to Miami specifically to interview Latinos at local unemployment offices.
The employee, Luis Cartagena, would then fly back to Mississippi, and busloads of new hires would arrive days later. Workers were provided a few weeks of free rent, beds and a bedsheet, Cartagena told the Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network.
They called it the “Hispanic Project.”
“I offered them a job,” Cartagena told the newspaper. “I offered them where to live. A lot of people like it. They came, but finally when they start working in the plant — it’s a hard life, working the plants — a lot of them quit.”
The rural, immigrant workers who churn through the plants are especially vulnerable to a disease outbreak even before they step onto the line, experts said.
For starters, health outcomes in rural areas are worse than in urban settings. Rural residents are more likely to have underlying conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney problems, which exacerbate the effects of the virus. Minorities in rural areas are more likely to die at an earlier age, according to the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center.
Those who are undocumented can’t buy health coverage or legally drive. Many live in multigenerational households, meaning the crowded conditions at work continue when they return home, according to a report this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar took heat this month for blaming meatpacking workers’ “home and social” lives for plant outbreaks. In a call with lawmakers first reported by Politico, Azar said many of the workers live in congregate housing and could have introduced the virus into the plants instead of the other way around.
When William Candler, a health official with the Rock Island County Health Department in Illinois, interviewed three meatpackers with COVID-19 who worked at the same plant, he discovered all lived in the same house with four other people. Those people also are presumed to have gotten the virus, Candler said, although they were not tested.
And in the Texas panhandle, meatpackers for JBS share a company bus that takes them from Amarillo, where many live, to the beef plant in Cactus, some 60 miles away.
At least 323 workers have contracted COVID-19 at the Cactus plant where about 3,200 employees — mostly immigrants and refugees speaking a score or more different languages — provide beef to 10 million people a day. One has reportedly died.
JBS increased its bus fleet to allow every-other-row seating and required masks and temperature checks.
Amplifying the problem, experts said, is that meatpackers feel pressured to work even when sick, a problem the CDC cited in its report this month on COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants.
“Some employees were incentivized to work while ill as a result of medical leave and disability policies and attendance bonuses that could encourage working while experiencing symptoms,” the report said.
Before quitting, Maria said, she’d swallow “a bunch of pills and try to do the job because there was no other option.”
Workers at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, told doctors and nurses of a “work while sick” culture while seeking help for breathing problems in early April, according to emails obtained by USA TODAY. The local health officer raised those concerns in a letter to the company’s human resources director, the emails showed.
To keep their jobs, workers know they have to keep showing up.
“You can’t be the squeaky wheel in the assembly line,” said Carrie Henning-Smith of the Rural Health Research Center in Minnesota. “It doesn’t leave you with much power and control.”
Sickness was rampant in the meatpacking industry even before the coronavirus. Meat and poultry workers experienced higher illness rates than other manufacturing workers — nearly 160 cases per 10,000 full-time meat and poultry workers in 2013, compared with about 40 cases for manufacturing overall, according to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
Those rates are likely even higher, the report said, because both workers and employers may underreport injuries and illnesses. For the worker, it’s from fear of job loss, the report said. For the employer, it’s from fear of the potential costs associated with those injuries and illnesses.
“Some meat and poultry workers may be less likely to report injuries and illnesses because of their vulnerable status as undocumented or foreign-born workers,” the 2016 GAO report noted.
What’s more, the health units in these meatpacking plants have numerous problems, including “lack of supervision of medical personnel, personnel working outside their scope of practice, out-of-date health unit protocols, inappropriate response to injuries and illness, lack of quality assurance, poor worker access to health units, and inadequate record keeping,” a 2017 GAO report found.
“They’ll just leave, and we’ll hire someone else,” Horowitz said of the companies’ thinking. “It’s a philosophy of labor turnover.”
Even before a deadly virus struck, working at a meatpacking plant could be fatal.
Workers on butchering and cutting lines have died from knife accidents. In one case, a worker trying to return his knife to his belt sheath “missed the opening and pushed the knife into his leg, severed his femoral artery, and died,” according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office Report.
The same report detailed meatpacking deaths from chemical exposure, machine injuries and encounters with animals that “struggle and thrash about wildly” if they’re not yet dead when hung on the line.
One worker “died after being sprayed with 400 pounds of toxic liquid ammonia while attempting to fix a pipe,” the report said. In another incident, “an employee was killed when a rack of sausage fell from a manual overhead conveyor system and struck him.”
Now, meatpackers face a new deadly work hazard. The coronavirus, an invisible virus transmittable on the breath of their coworkers, has infiltrated plants with little room for social distancing.
The lines in meatpacking plants are crowded because carcass cutting can’t be automated with machines. It requires humans to break down an animal into meat for the dinner table, precisely cutting carcasses of various sizes into thighs, breasts, loins and steaks.
The higher the plant’s output, the more workers it must add to the line.
“Right now we are seeing how one of the major bottlenecks of this system is the human body,” said Blanchette, the Tufts University anthropologist. “That has long been a problem, but until we had this outbreak … it has not been discussed very much publicly.”
Even the way air circulates in a meat packing plant can spread the coronavirus, said Al Heber, a Purdue University professor who has studied the ventilation systems.
In a plant’s “hot” area, animals are slaughtered, and large exhaust fans direct contaminants away from meat processing stations, Heber said. But in the “cold” area, where the meat needs to be preserved, airflow is limited. Workers are packed along the line in cold areas, and, if the virus got in, it would linger in the air.
According to the CDC, in general, coronaviruses also linger longer in colder, dryer environments.
“There’s no way there’s a containment,” Heber said. The ventilation system is “not designed to prevent person-to-person transfer of the disease.”
During the pandemic, meatpacking companies are installing plastic barriers between production line workers and requiring employees to wear masks to prevent the virus from spreading.
But that wasn’t enough at a Tyson plant in Rock Island County, Illinois, where health officials on April 23 found the partitions did not prevent contaminated air from “circulating within a worker’s breathing zone.”
Inspectors recommended that Tyson extend the barriers, and the company says it did.
Inspectors also recommended installing a system that filters air through ultraviolet light to kill the virus. That system was installed this past weekend in some high-traffic areas such as the locker room, said Ashley LaCroix, a Tyson Foods spokeswoman.
Even with the plant modifications, too many meatpackers know someone who has fallen ill from coronavirus or someone who has died from it. That they, too, will be infected seems less like an “if” and more like a “when.”
Plant workers who once feared they would lose their jobs if they took a day off now fear going to work at all. Many have stopped showing up.
At one point, the Mountaire Farms poultry plant where Maria worked stopped operating four of its eight production lines because of low attendance, said Ilana Dubester, who runs a Hispanic advocacy organization and talks to some of the plant workers there.
Tyson plants in Arkansas increased the speeds of their production lines because fewer workers are showing up, said Magaly Licolli, the founder of Vencemeros, an organization that advocates for poultry plant employees. The speeds are so fast, she said, that the workers, already used to cutting in a hurry, are getting tired.
One worker she spoke with said his supervisors told him the line had to go faster because America faced a crisis — meat shortages.
As fewer workers show up, Licolli said, “workers are often going from one department to the other.”
And that can spread the coronavirus.
One worker at a Tyson plant in Rogers, Arkansas, said managers moved him onto a line with a man who’d tested positive.
“I told the human resource assistant I wasn’t comfortable and I didn’t feel safe in that line,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his livelihood.
He wanted to go home but was told he’d lose a point, which could lead to his firing, he said. In mid-April, he took a week off, forgoing his $450 check.
Despite many missing workers, production has remained the same, he said. Managers find workers around the plant and set them to cutting, he said.
The company provides masks and checks temperatures, but he still doesn’t feel safe. People congregate at entrances when they clock in and scramble to find coats that people from the previous shift wore, he said.
“They don’t value us at all,” he said.
Contributing: USA TODAY data reporter Matt Wynn
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The Center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. Gannett is funding a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.