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“The fruits of their labor are on our tables; we owe it to them to have their backs”

Ohio Immigrant Alliance reacts to Wooster Daily Record series on COVID in Ohio meatpacking plants

Canton, OH – The Wooster Daily Record’s three-part series on COVID outbreaks in Ohio protein processing plants shows that Ohioans continue to benefit from the hard work of immigrants and native-born meat packers, while employers fail to provide for their health, safety, and financial stability. (See also, “Farmworker advocates press state for health and safety mandates,” Fremont News-Messenger).

“You have chicken or steak on your dinner table tonight because a group of people in Ohio worked together to slaughter, process, and perhaps even prepare it for you,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “They did so while risking contracting COVID on the line, unable to stay home to keep themselves and their families safe. When we praise the United States’ essential workers, let’s ensure that protein processors–whether U.S. or immigrant-born–are compensated and treated like the valuable workers they are.” 

In Part 1, “Tracking COVID: An inside look at outbreaks in NE Ohio meatpacking plants,” Alexander Thompson writes that “the virus arrived in early April” at Case Farms Winesburg chicken plant, followed by Gerber’s Poultry in Kidron, Case Farms’ Canton location, Ohio Farms Packing in Creston, and Fresh Mark’s Canton and Massillon factories. However, due to inadequate preparation and screening, “companies did not detect cases until weeks after the first ones were determined to have been present.”

Employers took no responsibility for keeping workers in close-together spaces, and refusing to provide quarantine pay. Instead, they put the burden on their employees, for living together in multigenerational households and carpooling to work. Jeff Stewart, director of the Immigrant Worker Project in Canton, explained the problem precisely: after being denied quarantine pay and excluded from federal stimulus payments, “families have had to find a way to survive without any help.” And that means going to work. 

Part 2, “Pressure to stay open: Meatpacking work continues despite COVID outbreaks, deaths,” features employers once again finding everyone else to blame but themselves for the outbreaks. Citing a federal executive order and a lack of state guidance, county health departments and employers refused to close the plants, relying on the “faith in God” strategy instead. 

“I just hope and pray by far most of the workers at Case are younger in reasonable health,” wrote Paul Miller, a Millersberg lawyer who is on the Holmes County Board of Health. “Then survival is nearly a given. Praise the lord.” 

With every plant except Fresh Mark in Salem remaining consistently open, infection rates continued to soar. 

Part 3, “Working in fear: COVID hits hard in Holmes, Stark meatpacking plants,” digs into the way that Case Farms responded–or rather, didn’t–to the pandemic in the early weeks and months. It chronicles how workers and health officials raised alarms about the lack of facial masks and distancing measures, as well as the constant emphasis on production, and the decision to allow workers who had been exposed to the virus to continue working without being tested.  

“Case Farms has their eye on one thing only … maintain production!! Makes me wonder if these department heads get some type of ‘bonus’ for meeting certain quotas in production!!” one health official wrote. By August, more than 231 Case Farms workers had contracted the virus–the largest tally among all the plants. One person died. 

Of course, Case Farms’ position at the epicenter of the COVID crisis in Ohio protein processors comes as absolutely no surprise. In 2017, ProPublica wrote an expose about the company and its business practices, explaining: 

Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with. When these workers have fought for higher pay and better conditions, the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries and quash dissent.

Still, the company remains in operation today, and their practices during COVID are once again deadly.

“It’s outrageous that companies like Case Farms are allowed to treat workers like machines, using them until they are ‘broken’ and replacing them with the ‘newer model.’ The rest of us Ohioans also have a role and a responsibility here. We consume these products. The people who work at these farms and factories are our neighbors. We need to demand better treatment and pay for all meat processing and agriculture workers in Ohio, including access to COVID financial relief. The fruits of their labor are on our tables; we owe it to them to have their backs.”

Follow the Ohio Immigrant Alliance on Twitter @tramontela