How Essential Food Workers Are Fighting Back | Civil Eats

How Essential Food Workers Are Fighting Back

With lawsuits and the civil rights complaints, advocates are taking concrete steps to prevent risking workers’ lives for the sake of company profits.

workers cutting meat in a slaughterhouse

“A nightmare.”

That’s how a decade-long employee for Tyson Foods, Inc. in northwest Arkansas describes working for the meat processor during the COVID-19 pandemic. The machine operator didn’t want to be publicly identified for fear of reprisal, but he told Civil Eats that he’s worried about his safety since the coronavirus began to spread at meatpacking plants in March.

“Everything is really dirty, and they don’t deep clean areas when people have tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “Whenever workers start having symptoms, we are not told who is sick or who is not.”

In a statement to Civil Eats, Tyson denied allegations of wrongdoing, but this Arkansas employee is hardly the only one sharing concerns about working conditions in meat processing plants during the pandemic. To raise awareness about their circumstances over the past four months, meatpacking employees from multiple companies have staged walkouts and spoken out about workplace hazards. Still, the coronavirus continues to take a toll on them.

More than 43,750 meatpacking and food processing workers in 530 facilities have tested positive for coronavirus, and at least 184 have died after infection. Now, a coalition of advocacy groups is trying a new strategy to protect these mostly Latinx, Asian, and African American workers: They filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on July 8, accusing Tyson and JBS USA of racial discrimination during the pandemic.

Three weeks later, advocacy groups Food & Water Watch and Venceremos filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint asking the FTC to investigate Tyson’s claims that it provides a “safe work environment” for its employees, a characterization they describe as misleading.

These complaints came after one of the nation’s most powerful labor organizations—Nevada’s Culinary Union—sued Las Vegas Strip casino companies on June 29 for allegedly creating unsafe working conditions for some of its 60,000 members, also largely people of color. The suit accuses the companies of neglecting to sanitize spaces, alert workers, or ask them to quarantine when colleagues test positive for COVID-19. By mid-July, at least 22 Culinary and Bartenders Union members (and their spouses or dependents) had died from COVID complications, and at least 352 had been hospitalized because of the virus.

Collectively, the lawsuit and the civil rights complaint signal that advocates for essential workers are taking concrete steps to prevent risking workers’ lives for the sake of company profits. Moreover, as ongoing Black Lives Matter protests shine a spotlight on social injustice, these legal actions draw attention to how existing inequities in the labor force have heightened workplace risks for vulnerable workers during the pandemic. Members of marginalized groups are more likely to work on the frontlines of the food industry than in management positions, a systemic racial divide with potential life-and-death consequences.

“In this moment, when we as a nation are facing a pandemic of unprecedented proportions and reckoning with the racial discrimination and injustice in our own history, we must protect workers on the front lines,” said Brent Newell, a senior attorney for Public Justice’s food project. “It’s absolutely outrageous in the year 2020 that this discrimination is allowed to happen out in the open for the public to see.”

Although people of color—such as the Arkansas Tyson machinist, who is Mexican—comprise 61 percent of the meatpacking facility workforce, they make up 87 percent of the meatpacking workers who’ve contracted coronavirus. Fast-moving production lines and disregard of the six-feet social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contributed to these infections, according to the complaint cosigned by groups including the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Rural Community Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, and Forward Latino.

The complaint identifies Tyson and JBS as the meat-processing companies linked to the most coronavirus outbreaks. Since these corporations have accepted tens of millions of dollars in government business and CARES Act relief funds this year, they must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits companies receiving federal funds from adopting policies that have a disparate impact on protected groups of workers, including those of color. Accordingly, the complainants want the USDA to resolve the allegations raised about Tyson and JBS or cut funding to them if the companies don’t take steps to comply with federal law.

“The policies that Tyson and JBS adopted after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have the effect of discriminating on the basis of race,” Newell said. “The policies inflict an adverse, disparate impact on Black, Latino, and Asian workers who experienced severe harm and disparity in that impact, compared to white workers and compared to the majority white management of these corporations.”

According to the complaint, white workers make up 34.5 percent of all meatpacking workers but only 19.1 percent of frontline workers in these facilities. In addition, about 73 percent of Tyson’s salaried employees are white and approximately 58 percent of JBS’s managers are. Disproportionately working in low-wage positions without social distancing increases the odds that employees of color will be exposed to COVID-19, a virus that has proven deadlier for Black and brown communities.

In response to the crisis, Tyson announced July 30 that it would begin offering weekly coronavirus tests for employees at all 140 of its U.S. facilities. The company will also create a chief medical officer position and add an additional 200 staff to its health services team.

While the Culinary Union’s lawsuit does not accuse casino companies of racial discrimination, marginalized workers might be more likely to experience the alleged hazardous working conditions cited, given the organization’s diverse membership. It is 55 percent women, 54 percent Latinx, 19 percent white, 15 percent Asian, and 10 percent Black.

“It’s very stressful to go to work right now,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the Culinary Union’s secretary-treasurer. “People don’t want to feel like they’re bringing [COVID] home to their kids. Sometimes, people have grandma living at home  or maybe their wife is having chemotherapy or someone is diabetic and more vulnerable. We’re looking to protect every hospitality worker. They have the right to go to work and not feel like they could get sick.”

Conflicting Accounts About Tyson’s Working Conditions

At his Arkansas Tyson plant, the veteran machine operator says workers routinely show up ill, even if they have coronavirus symptoms.

“People come in sick because they need to pay rent and bills,” he said. “It’s just a necessity.”

So far, he’s tested negative for COVID-19 but worries that could change because he’s worked next to others who have tested positive. As a machinist, he can practice social distancing but says that’s impossible for some of his colleagues and even for himself in the common areas of his facility, such as in restrooms, locker rooms, hallways, and breakrooms.

To truly feel safe, he would like the company to hire personnel to enforce social distancing. Additionally, he wants Tyson to ensure that high-touch surfaces are deep cleaned, employees are regularly tested, and those with COVID symptoms enter quarantine. He says the company has only tested him for the virus once, about two months ago.

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“And there were some cases where people tested negative and then tested positive,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how the company followed up in these situations.

Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson described a completely different set of working conditions to Civil Eats, noting that Tyson has participated in more COVID-19 testing than any other company in the country. Workers who test positive receive paid leave and return to work only when they meet specific criteria established by the CDC and Tyson, he said.

“Our plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety, and we have stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms, and other areas to protect our team members,” Burleson said. “We have team members dedicated to regularly wiping down and sanitizing common areas.”

The company has implemented symptom screenings, face masks, workstation dividers, and social distance monitors to protect workers from the coronavirus, Burleson added. One of the allegations raised in the civil rights complaint against Tyson and JBS, however, is that there are racial disparities related to social distancing. While white managers can easily stay six feet apart from their colleagues, frontline workers of color often cannot, Newell said.

“To put it in very general terms, the frontline worker is the one who’s standing shoulder to shoulder and not allowed to social distance,” Newell elaborated.

Faster Line Speeds Interfere With Social Distancing

Both labor and animal welfare advocates have blamed the lax social distancing protocols on high production line speeds at meat processing plants, since workers must stand close together to maintain the pace. On July 28, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and six cosponsors introduced the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act after Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) introduced similar legislation in the House earlier in the month.

These policies would prevent the USDA from granting line speed waivers to accelerate meat-processing rates. According to Booker’s proposed legislation, the USDA has approved nearly 20 requests from meatpacking plants to exceed regulatory limits during the pandemic.

Fears that COVID-related closures of meat processing plants would disrupt the food supply seemingly justified acceleration of line speeds to meet consumer demand, but the civil rights complaint points out that the amount of beef and chicken in cold storage increased through May 2020, compared to the same period the previous year, and how exports of pork and beef spiked through April 2020. And Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue disclosed in June that meat processing plants “are operating at more than 95 percent of their average capacity compared to this time last year.” In short, the pandemic has not jeopardized the U.S. food supply.

“The biggest issue is really worker safety—workers having to move so quickly with machinery,” said David Coman-Hidy, president of The Humane League. “At least four of the major poultry plants all received waivers to further increase the speed of the slaughter line, despite the workers having already cried out for safer conditions, slowing down production, and adding more space. Preying on people’s insecurity around food during a pandemic is just a very cynical way for the companies to sneak through their profit-increasing measures.”

Rather than accelerating line speeds, meatpacking companies could add more shifts for workers, spacing them out on the production line and giving them the protection they need, the complainants argue. Operating a meat processing plant and protecting workers don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals. But Magaly Licolli, co-founder and director of the northwest Arkansas worker advocacy organization Venceremos, said that frontline workers haven’t been kept safe because their employers don’t value them.

“The majority of the workers working in the processing plants are immigrants, especially here in northwest Arkansas,” she said. “They are from different parts of Latin America and the majority of the others are Pacific Islanders. We know that the companies require vulnerable workers to exploit and they know those people could die, but they are seen as expendable.”

On the Las Vegas Strip, thousands of food workers also have immigrant backgrounds, but many have more power than their counterparts in food processing plants because of their membership in Nevada’s influential Culinary Union. Yet, these workers are accusing their employers of sidestepping measures that could protect them from coronavirus as well.

Staving Off COVID-19 in Casinos

Jonathan Muñoz, a food server at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar, stayed at home with his wife and five small children when the restaurant closed in March. When the business reopened in mid-June, temperature scanners, face masks, and hand sanitizer greeted him upon his return. But problems arose almost immediately: trouble social distancing, customers opposed to face masks, and a coronavirus case in the restaurant.

As a result, Harrah’s Las Vegas, which co-manages the establishment, was included in the Culinary Union’s lawsuit against businesses on the Strip. Initially, the suit also took aim at MGM Resorts International’s The Signature at the MGM Grand and Sadelle’s Cafe at Bellagio, but the Culinary Union dropped them from the legal action and is now negotiating with them to take the actions needed to protect culinary workers.

That’s not yet the case for Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen, where Muñoz said he has encountered drunken tourists angered by seeing restaurant workers in masks. The face coverings given to staff made it difficult for people to hear them clearly, he said, and with no statewide mask mandate in place then, some diners quickly grew exasperated.

“They were being very rude,” he said. “They asked, ‘Why are you wearing that? I don’t have to wear it. I can’t understand you.’”

Since May, the Culinary Union has been calling for a compulsory mask policy in all public places. On June 26, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s mask mandate took effect, but it has drawn criticism and opposition from many. Additionally, the Culinary Union is working to get the Adolfo Fernandez Bill, named after a porter who died after contracting COVID-19, on the Nevada Legislature’s 2020 special session agenda. The bill would require businesses to adopt enhanced cleaning procedures, enforce social distancing, and develop coronavirus action plans, among other steps.

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Jessica Bremer, a specialty cook at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen, said it’s been difficult for the Harrah’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino to ensure that all customers are wearing masks when they enter the building.

“There’s a lot of different situations and excuses as to why people don’t want to wear them,” she said.

As someone with hypertension and multiple sclerosis, Bremer is deeply worried about contracting coronavirus. And inconsiderate customers aren’t the only concern. She and Muñoz asserted that social distancing can be difficult to maintain in their workplace and, within days of the restaurant reopening, Muñoz found out a kitchen runner had tested COVID-19 positive.

He said that his superiors didn’t seem to have a protocol in place for this possibility, and that one remarked that the staff shouldn’t have been told about their colleague’s diagnosis. That comment added to Muñoz’s anxieties about contracting the virus at the restaurant, where his wife also works as a hostess. Her “very compromised immune system” means she’s more likely to experience complications if infected, Muñoz explained.

The restaurant didn’t provide tests for them after the kitchen runner contracted coronavirus, Muñoz said, so he and his spouse got tested elsewhere and were relieved to be COVID-negative. But Guy Fieri shut down for weeks due to the one confirmed diagnosis among the staff. During that closure, Muñoz said he was told that all workers had to get tested before returning to work in July, and he once more tested negative.

A spokesperson for Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, said the company followed health and safety protocols after learning about a Guy Fieri employee’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

“Upon learning this information, Caesars . . . launched an investigation at the direction of the Southern Nevada Health District, which identified co-workers who came into close proximity with the individual who tested positive,” the spokesperson told Civil Eats.

The company offered a paid self-isolation period to these employees and has not allowed anyone to return to work without submitting a negative COVID-19 test at the end of the quarantine period, according to the spokesperson. He also said that the restaurant got deep cleaned during the June closure.

Muñoz considers the emphasis on testing an improvement but would like to see additional changes. Specifically, he wants to see better management of customers, security personnel at the door, frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, and paper menus discarded after one use.

“It’s just kind of scary,” Muñoz said of working during a pandemic. “We’re going out here on the frontline and dealing with all those guests. Then, we have to come back home, and we just don’t want to get our kids infected.”

Now, the fate of food servers like Muñoz largely depends on the outcome of the Culinary Union’s lawsuit. The fact that the group recently dropped two MGM businesses from the suit and instead entered into expedited arbitration with them to address worker protections suggests the union might be willing to do the same with Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar. All Argüello-Kline would say about next steps is that “we have our lawyers dealing with that process.”

In contrast, an investigation into the complaint against Tyson and JBS could take months or even years, as it involves an administrative procedure that won’t necessarily end in a resolution between the complainants, the meat processing companies, and the USDA. In the meantime, the Tyson machine operator in Arkansas wants the public to remember the workers behind their meat.

“I want consumers who buy Tyson Foods products to know that the workers are being discriminated against,” he said. “We are being treated worse than the chicken they are buying, and the company doesn’t care. They are not protecting us.”

Nadra Nittle was a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats until 2021. She is currently an education reporter for The 19th News. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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