More than 60 percent of meat plant workers are Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American, according to Labor Department data. About 37.5 percent are immigrants with limited or no English proficiency.

Illness rates for people who work in meatpacking plants — including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis — are 16 times as high as the average for all other industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although data shows illness rates in the plants have fallen, the Government Accountability Office in 2016 cited serious flaws with how the information is being collected and said it was not reliable.

Then the coronavirus spread through meat plants across the nation. An academic research paper that analyzed infection rates using data through mid-July found that counties with chicken plants that have waivers tended to have more coronavirus cases, on average, than those without waivers. The study was published in November in a top science journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A faster production line can result in both workers locating in greater proximity to one another and increased difficulty in maintaining personal protective equipment and thus could contribute to conditions that increase the likelihood of viral transmission,” the study said.

This aligns with the Post analysis, which looked at coronavirus cases in poultry plants through mid-December. Coronavirus cases have been reported at 41 percent of the plants with waivers, compared with an outbreak rate of less than 4 percent for other poultry plants, according to the Post analysis of FERN data.

The USDA questioned the validity of the conclusions drawn from the research. The department also said many plants slowed line speeds during the pandemic, causing it to further question a connection between slaughter speeds and coronavirus cases.

When meat plants became hot spots in late March and April, local health departments began to shut them down, ordering testing, personal protective gear and social distancing. But the industry petitioned the federal government for help to keep plant doors open, and Trump said plant employees were “essential workers.” He issued an executive order in April that said it was critical for beef, pork and poultry plants to “continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”

With the backing of the White House — and direct intervention by federal officials with local and state governments — meat plants with active coronavirus cases were able to reopen and remain open.

A shopper wearing a protective mask picks up a tray of frozen chicken at a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, on April 16.

‘Ram this rule through’

Days after Trump lost his bid for reelection, the USDA sent a proposed regulation to allow all poultry plants to increase line speeds to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, seeking its approval.

The odds of it being finalized before Biden’s inauguration appear slim, experts say, but past administrations have used methods to successfully push through such last-minute proposals, often referred to as midnight regulations.

“The fact that the agency sent this new proposed rule right after the election to the White House for clearance is a clear signal that they are trying to ram this rule through before the new administration can shut it down,” said Berkowitz, the former OSHA official who is now the worker safety director at the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. If the White House clears the proposal, the USDA pledged to have a period of public comment.

Biden’s transition team said last week that he would block actions taken by the Trump administration that had not yet become official. Even if the Biden administration doesn’t support a new rule to permanently increase line speeds, it’s unclear what will become of the 54 plants with waivers. Past administrations, including Obama’s, have routinely let them stand.

Employees at poultry plants, like the one where Juana Hernandez works, are concerned that the fast speeds and the tight quarters where they work will look the same as they did during the Trump administration.

Jimena Peterson waves a placard at a protest outside the offices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Denver on Sept. 16.

Although Super, with the National Chicken Council, said faster slaughter lines “do not translate into faster cutup and debone lines,” a colleague of Hernandez said he can no longer “get a good grip” on the chicken since line speeds increased in the fall.

The 38-year-old, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from management, said he used to process 36 to 38 chickens per minute but now must process 43 to 45 birds per minute. He is one of the employees knocking elbows with workers through plastic sheeting as he cuts wings off chicken carcasses.

In an interview in Spanish, the worker said he comes into the plant 30 minutes before the beginning of his 7 a.m. shift, hoping to avoid people in the crowd who may carry the coronavirus, which made his mother sick in July. She quit the plant this summer, he said, and never came back.

The quickened pace of his work means he comes home with more aches and pains than before. He recently went to the plant’s nursing station for a pain in his shoulder but was disappointed when the nurse, who was not present at the time he arrived, had to be called in and gave him 180 milligrams of ibuprofen. There was no massage, no review of his pain and no referral to a doctor. He has stopped going to the nurse and relies on vitamins from the local Salvadoran market to help.

“It’s inhumane,” he said. “We are worse than machines. At least machines get maintenance every so often. We don’t get anything.”

Source: The Washington Post