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As Virus Spreads In Meat Processing Plants, Advocates Warn Immigrant Workers Remain Vulnerable

In this file photo, a worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.
Courtesy of Oxfam America / file
In this file photo, a worker at a meat processing plant stands side by side other workers.

For years, refugees who have survived political persecution, hunger and war in Latin America, Southeast Asia and East and Central Africa have come to Iowa to build a new life. After raising their children in camps, some have been able to buy homes and climb their way into the American middle class, a college education for their kids no longer an unthinkable fantasy. For many, this became possible because of the steady workand the higher than minimum wages at the state’s meat processing plants and manufacturing facilities. Now some of those places are becoming hotspots of COVID-19, as the highly contagious virus tears through production lines where advocates say stringent social distancing is not possible.

A View From Tyson

They’re afraid of the coronavirus.

After fleeing a country in Central Africa, they now work eight hours a day on an assembly line cleaning meat, sometimes nine.

They say there is no space between them and other workers, at a Tyson meat processing plant in eastern Iowa.

IPR is not sharing their name, because they fear retribution at work. We are also using the pronoun “they” to further protect this person’s identity.

They say, through an interpreter, that they work so closely next to others on the production line, that sometimes they feel other hands touching them.

“We are really, really close. Sometimes when I’m using a knife to cut the meat, I just feel somebody else’s hand pushing me or touching me,” they said through an interpreter. “There is not even one meter between us.”

Their employer has directed workers to wear masks and gloves, they say.

And employees’ temperatures are taken before entering the building at the beginning of a shift.

But waiting to enter the building, changing clothes in the work locker room, standing on the production line, they say they can’t help but find themselves in big groups of people, where social distancing isn’t possible.

And that scares them.

We are really, really close. Sometimes when I'm using a knife to cut the meat, I just feel somebody else's hand pushing me or touching me. There is not even one meter between us. - a worker at a Tyson plant in eastern Iowa

They don’t know who has tested positive for the virus and who hasn’t. They say some workers simply don’t show up.

“The leaders never mention that there is anybody who has the sickness. But we’ve heard stories that there are some people who got infected with the COVID-19,” they said. “But we never see them coming back to work. So we believe there is somebody, but the leaders never mention.”

“There’s so many people who have a lot of fear because the employers never mention about those people who are getting sick,” they added.

If they do get sick, they say they know how to notify their supervisor, who will send them to a nurse at the plant.

They say there usually are language interpreters to help, who in their case speak Swahili and French.

But for some, those are not native languages, but a third or fourth or fifth language, learned in order to survive in a refugee camp.

Not Sick But Not Safe

Another individual works at a manufacturing company in eastern Iowa, as does their father. Their mother works in a meat processing plant. They say both parents have COVID-19.

They fled a country in East Africa and have built a life here with their spouse and their child.

IPR is not publishing their identity and is referring to this individual with the pronoun “they” because they fear retribution at work.

The virus made their father feel weak, they say, and feverish, that he lost his strength and his appetite.

They say they’ve been trying to help their parents navigate the health care system.

But they’re confused by why the coronavirus testing took so long, and why they themselves can’t get tested.

“I try to call the hospital many times,” they said. “They say I can’t be tested because I haven’t any symptoms. I try to tell them that I live with someone who has tested positive and they say, ‘no, no you can’t be tested’.”

Still, they know they could have caught the virus from their parents or at work. So they’re staying home for two weeks, as public health experts are urging people to do.

I can't live without money. I need to pay rent. I need to buy food. I need to pay my utility bills. So without an income it is very difficult. - a worker at an eastern Iowa manufacturer, on staying home due to COVID-19

Even though their father isn’t working, they say he still gets a paycheck because he tested positive.

But they are not being paid, because they have not been tested.

“I can’t live without money,” they said. “I need to pay rent. I need to buy food. I need to pay my utility bills. So without an income it is very difficult.”

They’re not sick, but they’re afraid. They say they have diabetes and they know that carries greater risk.

They say they pray to God to protect them.

Advocates Call For More Protections

After initially spreading in Iowa’s metro areas, COVID-19 is now rapidly moving through rural communities. The virus is currently more widespread in Louisa County in southeast Iowa than in anywhere else in the state, and more widespread than most anywhere else in the country, on a per capita basis.

According to a New York Times analysis, as of Friday, the county’s transmission rate ranks among the top 15 in the nation, ahead of New York City, Detroit and Chicago.

The surge in cases in the community of some 11,000 people follows an outbreak at a Tyson meat processing plant in Columbus Junction. As of Wednesday, two employees at the plant had died of COVID-19.

Now advocates are warning that blue collar workers across the state are at an even greater risk of being exposed to the virus, especially those who are immigrants and refugees. They’re calling on state leaders to do more to protect workers who can’t stay home.

“We know that they are already vulnerable in a lot of different ways to being taken advantage of in the workplace, before this pandemic,” said Erica Johnson of the Iowa chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for immigrants.

Workers who help support the food supply chain, or perform other critical services are proud to be “essential," says Rafael Morataya of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. But some feel they are risking their lives, he said.

“These workers are still working. They are proud of the work that they do. But they are not willing to risk their lives for those jobs and they are struggling to demand that their employer do more to protect them,” he said.

Lots of people are making kind of life-changing decisions with a lot fear [...] It's kind of a gamble. - Lemi Tilahun, refugee advocate

Data from the Iowa Department of Public Health shows that people of color in Iowa are disproportionately contracting the virus. While 6 percent of Iowans identify as Hispanic of Latino, they make up 17 percent of positive cases. Four percent of Iowans are black, but 9 percent of those who have tested positive are black.

Lemi Tilahun is a refugee advocate in eastern Iowa and says major language and cultural barriers persist that are preventing workers from accessing all the information they need to protect themselves. Tilahun says advocates are still fielding even basic questions from some workers, due to a lack of access to interpreters.

“[Questions] range from employment to like, ‘hey, I don’t even know how to call in sick to work. When the questions are being asked, I’m not even certain I can answer them’,” Tilahun said.

There are multilingual COVID-19 hotlines up and running for Iowans. More information is available here and here.

While the American public sifts through constantly changing and sometimes conflicting advice from elected officials and public health experts, this process can be even more daunting for those for whom English isn’t their first language.

The stress of the coronavirus crisis is compounded by trauma and mental health issues many refugees struggle with, Tilahun says. Some are weighing whether they should go to work and risk potential infection, or stay home and risk losing their job and health insurance, he says.

“Lots of people are making kind of life-changing decisions with a lot fear,” Tilahun said. “It’s kind of a gamble.”

More than 60 organizations are calling on Gov. Kim Reynolds to take immediate action to protect workers, by more strictly enforcing social distancing, ensuring medical care for all Iowans regardless of immigration status, and allowing employees to qualify for workers’ compensation if they contract COVID-19 on the job.

Labor unions, the Catholic Dioceses of Davenport, Des Moines and Sioux City, LULAC Iowa and others have signed on to the letter, which was sent to Reynolds on Wednesday.

The State Response

Reynolds is facing increasing pressure from advocates to explain what steps she’s taking to protect the state’s workers. She’s said she is working with large employers like meat processing plants and manufacturers to screen employees for symptoms.

We do have people both at the local public health level as well as at the state department that have the ability to speak more than one language and in addition to that we have access to translation services. - Sarah Reisetter, Iowa Department of Public Health

Employers have said they’re urging those who can to work from home, that they’re relaxing attendance policies, handing out personal protective equipment and erecting plastic barriers to insulate workers. Some, like the Iowa Premium beef plant in Tama and the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, have even temporarily stopped their operations.

In an email, Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the company is working to protect their employees and alert them if they’re at risk.

“When we learn an employee has experienced symptoms and tested positive, they remain on sick leave until they are released by health officials to return to work. We also affirmatively notify anyone who has been in close contact with the positive team member,” the statement read in part.

Croston did not respond to specific questions about the company’s handling of the outbreak.

Reynolds has also announced she’s sending hundreds of extra COVID-19 tests to the Tyson facilities in Columbus Junction and Waterloo, to get a better sense of the scale of infection at the sites. Abbott rapid testing machines are also being sent to clinics in parts of the state where fewer tests have been available.

Reynolds told reporters Thursday she’s marshaling state and local public health workers to expand contact tracing. Public health experts say this process of tracking down those who have tested positive and alerting people who may have come in contact with them is a key part of gauging the scope of the virus and slowing its spread.

“We are going to significantly increase the number of individuals that will be doing the contact tracing. One of the agencies that we’ll be utilizing is the Department of Human Services who has existing state employees that we just will redirect and reallocate what they are doing to help do some of that follow up and contact,” Reynolds said.

IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said there are multilingual staff able to do this work.

“We do have people both at the local public health level as well as at the state department that have the ability to speak more than one language and in addition to that we have access to translation services,” Reisetter said. “So we will be looking at all of those things so that we can make sure that we are able to connect with people who have been identified as positive cases.”

With local public health departments often overworked and understaffed at the best of times, it’s still not clear whether the health infrastructure in rural Iowa can meet the current need.

The administrator of the Louisa County Public Health Department, the community where transmission is spiking, declined an interview request from IPR, saying staff were too busy responding to the crisis. They also did not respond to questions about to what extent they’re working with interpreters to communicate with effected residents whose first language isn’t English.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter