It seems meat shortages -- and the response to them -- are little more than background to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workers in the meatpacking industry.
Despite President Trump invoking the Defense Protection Act to compel meat plants to continue to operate to stave off shortages, Reuters is reporting that many meatpacking workers are consistently absent from work.
According to a recent article, Reuters says around one-third of the workforce of the Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota is either quarantined or afraid to come to work over safety concerns. This Sioux Falls plant was an epicenter of virus cases -- tallying hundreds of cases before initiating a temporary shutdown -- but it appears that its workers actions are not unique.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said that between 30 and 50 percent of meatpacking workers nationwide were absent last week. Reuters spoke with workers and union leaders and concluded that, while absenteeism is varying from plant to plant, the consensus is that meatpacking workers have lost faith in their management’s abilities to protect them. Many plants shuttered in the short term to sanitize and install barriers to help promote physical distancing of workers, but the process itself makes it challenging for many workers to stay far enough apart.
Meat company executives were warning of upcoming shortages as shutdowns became common amid climbing virus cases. After the DPA order was issued, meat production capacity was lifted back up to around 75 percent but until workers feel they can safely return, getting back to full output will be a challenge.
And outside of the very real physical toll the pandemic is taking on meat workers, a secondary toll will continue to hit consumers: tight supplies in May led to a 40 percent increase in meat prices.