I first spoke with Ann*, a processing worker at Smithfield’s pork plant in Crete, Nebraska, almost three weeks ago. At that point, there were just over 20 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the facility; now there are 10 times that. Ann expressed anxiety about clocking in for work every day, afraid that she might contract the disease and doubtful that the company’s safety measures were adequate to protect workers from it.
Since then, the coronavirus has continued to rapidly spread within the plant—which employs 2,100 workers—where it’s impossible to maintain social distance on processing lines and within hallways and locker rooms. Now, 330 cases of Covid-19 have been linked to the facility, The Omaha World-Herald reports. One of those cases, Ann found out 11 days ago, is her husband, a fellow Smithfield employee.
Last Tuesday, he woke up with a stuffy nose and a headache, two symptoms of Covid-19. They decided to make an appointment for Covid-19 tests at a drive-through site set up by the city of Crete. They got their results—negative for her, positive for him—two days later. I spoke to Ann during the midway point in their two-week isolation period.
Meatpacking plants have been routinely criticized for prioritizing output over worker health during the coronavirus pandemic. Union representatives want facilities to slow down processing lines, which would give workers room to spread out while keeping production going. Public health experts and some lawmakers are calling on OSHA, the agency that oversees workplace safety, to issue mandatory rules to compel employers to reduce the spread of airborne disease. (Current Covid-19 workplace guidance issued by OSHA is optional.)
At the same time, many elected officials seem focused on keeping meat production running rather than focusing on worker safety. Last week, Trump declared meatpacking plants “critical infrastructure,” preventing state or local health officials from shutting them down. He also suggested that he would address “liability issues,” a comment that experts believe refers to protection against lawsuits over potential workplace exposures to Covid-19. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has refused to shut down meat plants linked to outbreaks, against the advice of health officials, a Propublica report found. Last week, he announced that the state would stop tracking Covid-19 cases linked to meat plants.
As for Smithfield’s Crete facility—it’s still running but at a significantly reduced capacity, as many workers are in self-quarantine due to Covid-19. Over the phone, Ann spoke about the apprehension she felt while waiting for their test results, high rates of reported absenteeism within the Smithfield plant, and the loneliness of being isolated from her husband in their shared home.
*We’re withholding Ann’s real name to protect her from retaliation
When me and my husband woke up on Monday, April 27, he felt stuffy in his nose, he had a headache, and he felt like he had stuff in his ear. We figured it was due to allergies, but he said, “Let’s just go get tested for peace of mind.” We got an appointment for Wednesday in the morning. I had a little bit of anxiety going in—I don’t know if it was because I didn’t want to find out that we were positive, or if it was just the whole test itself, sticking that up your nose, knowing that it was going to be uncomfortable.
We got tested and were told to isolate until we got our tests back, which wasn’t until Friday, May 1. My doctor called and reported me as negative, but we didn’t get results back on my husband. Later, I was hooked up with a hotline number, where I had to leave a message. Then someone at the hotline called me back and said my husband was positive.
“It’s just a matter of time before everybody catches it.”
My husband was scared. I was scared. We kind of looked at each other, not really knowing what to say. The media talks so much about people dying from Covid-19. I supposed that’s something that went through his head because I know that went through my head. It just scares you, not knowing how his body was going to react to the virus. We didn’t know if his symptoms were going to get worse. And thank God they did not. A week in, he’s actually gotten better. Right now, we’re both thankful that he’s not in a worse state than he is.
As of right now, our company is paying us for the 14 days off due to Covid-19. That kind of gives us a little bit of comfort on the financial side. But if either one of us would have to be hospitalized, or put on a ventilator or any kind of breathing apparatus, that would put a big toll on the checkbook.
We don’t know where he contracted Covid-19, but it was starting to spread at the workplace before he got it. We had already had employees in our departments that had tested positive. We really weren’t in contact with too many people outside of work, but I can’t be sure that’s where he got it.
When he was first diagnosed, we really stayed apart from each other. I’m constantly wiping the light switches down, the doorknobs down, more than three times a day, sanitizing everything that I know that he’s touched, washing our towels every day, making sure his bed is clean. It really takes a toll on you. I miss him, I miss his lips.
“Everyday normal things that you take for granted are completely taken away from you.”
A fellow employee messaged me and let me know that they’re only working maybe five hours a day now. In a normal work week, before this all started, we worked anywhere from six and a half to eight hours a day, every day. My department is down to 10 people, out of 125, and it’s not the only department that’s hurting. Each department is made up of around four processing lines. Each line includes around 30 people: You have the very first person that actually feeds the product onto the line, and then you have people that are standing shoulder-to-shoulder all the way down until the very last piece. And then you actually have people down on the floor that are weighing the product up, and then shipping it out. I don’t know how much production we put out as a department before, but I know that they’re now putting out zero.
Those people in our department that are still healthy are now getting shipped out to different departments to fill in the spots where people are missing. You know it’s being spread out there; it’s just a matter of time before everybody catches it. I can’t say that if Smithfield would have closed down for two weeks that this would have stopped the spread of the COVID-19. It would have maybe slowed the spread down. But I don’t think it would have stopped it.
After my husband tested positive, a lot of people reached out to us, letting us know that they’re there if we need them. The neighbor across the street has made me homemade bread and muffins. She brings them onto the porch, rings the doorbell, and leaves. A lot of people reached out, which we’re very grateful for.
We’ve not been able to do anything, we can’t go anywhere, we’ve had to have people get groceries for us. Everyday normal things that you take for granted are completely taken away from you. I’m thankful that we’re not alone—at least we have each other, but it’s still hard. We’re done with our first week, and we still got one more week yet. I am looking forward to getting out of isolation and quarantine. But I’m not looking forward to going back to Smithfield.