Why is Reynolds trusting meatpackers with COVID mitigation?

Senate Democrats say President Trump's order to keep meatpacking plants open is putting workers at risk. (Creative commons photo via Pxhere.com)

It was snowing on Thursday, the day Gov. Kim Reynolds was trying to assure Iowans that the management of a giant meatpacking company had it all under control.

“You know, I think employers are doing the right thing and they need to continue to do the right thing,” she said Thursday.  Company officials at Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo were saying there was no outbreak.

Reynolds said plant operators were taking all the appropriate precautions to keep employees safe and that government inspectors would be on hand to make sure of that.

Before the day was out, however, public health officials in Black Hawk County were confirming media reports from workers at the plant that there was, indeed, an outbreak at the Waterloo plant.  The governor’s suggestion that USDA inspectors would monitor COVID mitigation had been corrected by her staff, who said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was monitoring compliance.

OSHA, however, did not have inspectors on site and there were conflicting reports about what it was actually prepared to do.

Who was snowing whom?

By Friday, Reynolds was sending 2,700 COVID-19 tests to Waterloo, one for every worker at the plant.  But she was still relying on plant management’s word that everything was under control.

“So I’ve really focused on, like, the HR or … the plant manager so that we can understand what the needs are. So we can, first of all, make sure that the employees are safe, and that they’re working in a safe environment. And testing is a critical component so that we can start to understand what the scope of the exposure has been,” she said.

She said the company was relaxing its attendance policy and ending its attendance-based bonuses so it wouldn’t encourage employees to come to work sick. She did not say the company was going to pay workers who took time off because they or family members were sick, however. The company website says workers can take short-term disability if they’re sick.

Workers who have concerns about workplace conditions, Reynolds said, can call a lawyer.  Her stock answer to questions about workers’ concerns is to call the COVID-19 legal assistance hotline set up by the state bar association. Earlier this week, Iowa Workforce Development warned that workers who quit their jobs won’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

Local officials said they were angry and scared and they questioned the information plant management had been providing. Twenty community officials signed a letter asking Tyson to temporarily shut down the plant to allow for thorough cleaning, worker testing and development of mitigation strategies.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said he felt Reynolds “was misinforming Iowans, maybe not intentionally but it clearly seemed that way when she talked about the care being taken at Tyson.”

He and other officials cited interviews with Tyson workers who described the sorts of concerns that should surprise no one.  Workers are elbow to elbow, they have to work when they’re sick and often don’t get breaks.

He said workers only recently were provided face masks and they are still working in tight conditions. Workers report they can’t stay home because they can’t afford to lose their job.

“This is very troubling. When you think about the workers that at Tyson, a lot of them don’t speak English, have limited opportunities in our community. And they don’t have a choice,” Dotzler said. “They’re concerned about their families. We’ve had individuals there that said that they had underlying conditions. They had to quit work because they were afraid that they were going to die.”

A Tyson spokesperson told the Waterloo Courier there were no plans to close the plant.

On Sunday, the state reported 260 new cases of COVID-19 related to the outbreaks at Tyson and National Beef in Tama. National Beef shut down its Iowa plant April 11 and anticipated reopening April 20.

The reluctance to shut down these plants is understandable. They are vital to the food supply, in Iowa and nationally. They are crucial to the livestock industry in the state. And they are important employers in their community. Perhaps it’s possible, with appropriate screening and distancing, to keep plants like this operating without putting workers in danger.

But that does not mean Iowans should trust their lives and health to the word of business owners ─ any business owners ─ who say they are taking care of their workers. And it seems like that’s what Reynolds has been doing.

Even before the very first outbreak at a packing plant, the state should have been swarming all the plants with public health workers, OSHA inspectors, and anyone else who could assess and enforce strict guidelines for monitoring worker health and preventing virus spread. Testing supplies should have arrived before the outbreak, not after. And Reynolds personally should have been reaching out, not just to plant managers but to groups representing workers to make sure she was getting the facts and to communicate vital public health guidance.

While the bar association should be commended for offering a legal aid hotline, that should not be the only recourse for workers to report that their employers are putting them at risk. Iowa Workforce Development should also make it clear that workers who quit because their workplace is unsafe will indeed be entitled to jobless benefits.

Employers certainly face consequences to their bottom line if their entire workforce gets sick. But until that happens, there’s no accountability.

Reynolds could perhaps be excused for trusting ─ but not for continuing to trust after it’s become so clear that workers were in jeopardy. The consequences of this snow job are not going to melt away, and we’re all going to be paying for it.