Some meatpacking workers say company attendance policies have forced them to go to work or risk being fired for absenteeism when they have covid-19 symptoms. Meatpacking plants are a major source of outbreaks in rural counties, Heather Schlitz reports in a collaboration between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Most major meatpackers use a point system in which workers receive a points for missing work. After a certain number, they get fired. "For a few months earlier this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being," Schlitz reports. "However, the point system has endured at Tyson and JBS plants throughout the pandemic, and it has continued to coerce people with potential covid-19 symptoms into showing up to work, said plant employees, their family members, activists and researchers."
As one worker told Schlitz: "If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working . . . If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home." Spokespeople for Tyson and JBS, the nation's two largest meatpackers, told Schlitz that they encourage employees to stay home while sick. A JBS spokesperson said the company has never taken points from a worker for a documented illness during the pandemic.
However, a worker may display symptoms long before receiving a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis, due to testing delays. The point system has likely contributed to the spread of the virus, Jose Oliva, co-founder of HEAL Food Alliance, a non-profit that organizes food industry workers, told Schlitz.