I want to talk about two different workers in the US. One worker is a Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher. On May 14th, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell said he will not play this season for a reduced salary, especially because the risk of contracting the coronavirus is “just not worth it.” Snell voiced his opposition to Major League Baseball’s reported proposal of a 50–50 revenue split with the players for a coronavirus-shortened season in a video posted to social media. “Y’all gotta understand, man, for me to go — for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof,” Snell said. “No, I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that’s just the way it is for me. Like, I’m sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?” Blake Snell is in year 2 of a $50 million, five-year contract that included a $3 million signing bonus, a $1 million salary last year and a $7 million salary this season.
The other worker I want to talk about is a line worker at the JBS beef processing plant in Cactus, Texas, located in the Texas Panhandle a few miles south of the Oklahoma border. The JBS beef packing plant here “processes” thousands of cattle each day, turning live animals into disassembled components that ultimately end up on dinner tables. The plant employs about 3,000 workers, who endure “brutal and dangerous work,” but which pays relatively well at $16-$22 or more per hour, plus health insurance and bonuses. Many of the workers there are immigrants, a few years ago primarily from Mexico but in recent years from Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Because they are immigrants, in many cases refugees, the workers do not have much of a voice politically or within the company. Many work as long as they can take the physical and mental toll the job takes on them, because they are happy to have a job and need to have a job.
Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, the Federal government identified meat packing employees as “essential” workers who would not be shut down like many others in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. This also meant that they were required to continue working, or risk losing their job, and would be ineligible for unemployment if they quit. However, neither the Federal or State governments, nor the companies, did much of anything to protect the workers from becoming infected. The JBS plant in Cactus quickly became the source of a major COVID-19 outbreak; as of early May, 323 people had tested positive for COVID-19, up from 243 on May 3 and 114 on April 21. Moore County, where Cactus is located, has a population of only 22,000 but has an infection rate of 24.54 infections per 1,000 residents, higher than any other county in the state, including Harris Co. At least one worker has died. No protective equipment was provided, no changes to the floor configurations, with workers standing shoulder to shoulder in some areas, and no disinfecting was done. There was not even any testing available until mid-May at the JBS plant.
The focus of the owners of these plants was to ensure these disposable workers continued to report to work. Ken Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and owner of a large plant in Sioux Falls, SD where another major outbreak occurred, stated the following on a call with investors on March 24: “I think they (plant employees) are grateful to have jobs and a paycheck when so many in the U.S. are afraid of losing their job or already have. The risk is that employees get scared and, therefore, do not want to operate the plants.” That very day, March 24, at least one plant worker tested positive. At the Sioux Falls plant, insiders stated that workers “didn’t have any protective gear. They didn’t have any masks. They didn’t have anything that could protect them from getting sick at work.” In some work areas inside the plant, managers did not even allow workers to wear masks that they brought out of concern that wearing them would frighten workers and cause them to not come into the plant to work. By early May, more than 850 workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
Thousands of meat packing workers have gotten sick at plants all over the US, in Texas, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Meanwhile, political leaders have downplayed the illness, and the workers themselves. South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, went on Fox News and stated, “We believe that 99% of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility. It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus…” due to their crowded living conditions. As of May 7, the South Dakota Department of Health says there are nearly 1,100 positive cases among Smithfield workers and their close contacts, like family members; at least two have died. In Wisconsin, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, in a hearing that ultimately overturned the Governor’s stay at home order, commented on a spike in COVID-19 cases at a meatpacking plant, saying “These were due to the meatpacking, though. That’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.” It’s as though she was separating out workers at the plant, again, mainly immigrants, as somehow not really connected to the community that they live in, or the nation that they help to feed.
What this pandemic has done is exposed the true picture of our economy — multi-millionaire sports figures who refuse to work unless “they get theirs” — ie their all the millions they are due — verses the “essential” workers, who have no choice but to continue working, often for below or barely above a living wage, often with poor or no healthcare insurance, no job security, exposed to a potentially deadly virus. This essay focused on meatpacking workers but could just as easily have focused on other “essential” workers — grocery store clerks and stockers, transportation workers, Walmart workers, gas station attendants, garbage and recycling collectors, and others who are critical to the functioning of our economy but are generally low-paid and forced into hazardous work with little to no protection or recourse.
Ensuring our food supply is uninterrupted is certainly essential, and I do not disagree with characterizing these and other workers in our food supply chain as essential. But Federal and State governments, in deeming these workers as essential, have a responsibility to ensure their safety, ensure they are paid in accordance with their risk and importance, and the workers and family members are provided for should they become sick. And, if they are “essential” during a pandemic, they are no less “essential” during other times; they should earn a living wage, they should have access to affordable and quality healthcare, and they should be able to care for family members. It is all very straightforward. Yes we like baseball, but what is baseball without hot dogs? What is football, without tailgating? Essential workers are just that, essential. We must take care of them.