Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Investigation shows how pork-processing plant officials sacrificed worker safety for profits during pandemic

Meatpacking plants have been a major vector for the coronavirus pandemic in rural areas. An investigation into an outbreak at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri, shows how the company failed to enact appropriate safeguards that would have mitigated the spread of the disease, even as company officials said they were doing all they could to protect workers. Though St. Joseph is not rural (the population tops 76,000), the Triumph Foods investigation likely illustrates why other meatpacking plants have been coronavirus hotbeds.

The investigation is by Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe of USA Today and Sky Chadde of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The project receives funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

"The reporting found Triumph failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of covid-19. And local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers," Axon, Bagenstose, Crowe and Chadde report. "At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10 hours a day, crammed side by side. Even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus program that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill."

The findings buttress experts' warnings that meatpacking plants would prioritize production over worker safety. "Workers and their unions have accused companies of doing the bare minimum to protect staff and time and again finding ways to keep their lines running," they report.

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