By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
A small group of deacon formation classmates, parishioners and family members stood across the road from Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction on July 24 and prayed Morning Prayer.
“We did so remembering those who have been affected by COVID-19, those who have died and now those who return to work,” said Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities. “While we prayed, a gentleman approached us. One from our group shared why we gathered. The gentleman responded, ‘I assumed you were Catholic.’”
The safety and wellbeing of meatpacking plant workers weigh heavily on the mind of Ferris and other Catholics in the Diocese of Davenport. They learned through news reports that the “first confirmed coronavirus outbreak at an Iowa meatpacking plant was far more severe than previously known” (Des Moines Register, July 22, 2020).
At a May 5 press conference, the state’s health department reported 221 employees at Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction tested positive for COVID-19. The Des Moines Register learned through open records law that plant officials reported to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration that 522 employees had been infected.
“We’re not currently aware of any active COVID cases involving team members employed at our Columbus Junction plant,” Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations for Tyson Foods, told The Catholic Messenger on July 24.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19,” he said. (Read the full response HERE.)
Representatives of the recently formed Iowa Council for Worker Safety say more needs to be done. “Tyson employees across the state continue to report a confusing and cumbersome system to navigate the short-term disability program, and it’s unclear what languages information about the pandemic is being translated into,” said Jesse Case, a council representative. “The community has a right to protect itself as well as educate residents about threats to health and safety in our cities and towns. While Tyson can cite a list of pandemic responses that virtually every employer should be practicing, communities are still unclear on the overall strategy and have still not received a response to the information request that any good community partner should be willing and eager to share.”
The information request refers to a June 12 letter that the Iowa Council for Worker Safety sent to the plant manager of the Columbus Junction facility expressing concern about COVID-19 policies and procedures there. The Diocese of Davenport is among the letter’s signers. Loxi Hopkins, a diocesan volunteer, serves on the council. She also helped organize it. Members include representatives of faith groups, workers, immigrant and community organizations from Columbus Junction and Eastern Iowa.
“Workers at Tyson in Columbus Junction are our friends and neighbors; we care about their health and well-being and know that now, more than ever, we are all interconnected,” the council wrote. “We have read your statements to the press and on your webpage that express your overall commitment to worker safety during this pandemic. However, we are also hearing a lot of community concerns and confusion about specific policies and responses. Your policies at this moment have health consequences far beyond the plant itself and are a matter of community concern,” the letter stated.
The council sought information about social distancing in locker rooms, production and meal areas; safe transportation to and from work; modification of attendance or leave policies; access to restrooms, soap/water and hand sanitizer. Also, education and training for workers and supervisors about how to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, among other protocols.
Also requested: Leave and pay policies, workers’ rights and protection against retaliation, quality and quantity of personal protective equipment provided, and restroom use policies.
Council representatives said they have not received a response to their letter. On July 13, they launched a public petition calling on Tyson managers statewide to pay all employees who have missed work due to COVID-19 infection, exposure symptoms, quarantine or COVID-19 related child and family medical care.
“Tyson workers and their families across the state have raised alarming reports that many workers have struggled to survive without pay for weeks after being infected in COVID-19 outbreaks,” the petition states.
“These reports stand in direct contrast to claims by Tyson that health and safety are their top priorities, and suggest that workers and their families are shouldering the physical and economic risks of Tyson’s continued production in a pandemic that has infected tens of thousands of meatpacking workers nationally.”
One Tyson employee in Columbus Junction infected with COVID-19 “reported that he felt pressured to return to work before he had fully recovered, and while members of his household were still incapacitated from the virus,” the petition stated. “When his two weeks of paid sick leave ended, the employee believed that he would no longer be eligible for paid leave — which would have been a financial catastrophe for the family since the other income earners were sick and unable to work. When he returned to work, he described that the production lines were running faster than usual, and it was extremely difficult to keep up for eight-hour shifts while still struggling with the virus.”
Ferris said, “People need to be able to safely provide for their family. Doing so enables them to maintain their dignity.” He cited the first principle of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Framework for Economic Life: “The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.”
About Iowa Council for Worker Safety
The Iowa Council for Worker Safety formed in the spring in response to meatpacking plant workers approaching members of TeamCan, a social justice arm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. TeamCan previously assisted Columbus Junction residents facing eviction from their trailer court, said Loxi Hopkins, a Diocese of Davenport volunteer and TeamCan vice president. “We were organizing people in the trailer park to stand up for themselves,” she said.
The council’s partners include faith groups, workers, immigrant and community organizations from Columbus Junction and eastern Iowa cities that advocate for the safety of workers, their families and the communities during the pandemic.
The Iowa Council for Worker Safety partners:
● Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO
● Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa
● Catholic Diocese of Davenport
● Teamsters Community Action Network (TeamCan)
● One Human Family
● Progressive Action for the Common Good
● The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa – LULAC Iowa