Bloomberg Law
July 8, 2020, 12:00 AM

Almost 90% of U.S. Meat Plant Workers With Virus Are Minorities

Michael Hirtzer
Michael Hirtzer
Bloomberg News

The outbreaks at meat-processing plants across America that sickened thousands and led to beef shortages have gotten worse -- and minority workers have been the hardest hit.

More than 16,200 U.S. meat plant workers had tested positive for Covid-19 by the end of May and 86 had died, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report Tuesday. That’s up fromthe 4,900 sick workers and 20 deaths published by the CDC in a report from April. Of the cases that disclosed race and ethnicity, 87% involved minority workers -- with employees identified as Hispanic accounting for 56% of infections despite making up less than a third of the overall workforce.

The data, collected from more than 20 states and hundreds of facilities, lay bare for the first time just how dramatically and disproportionately the pandemic has affected minority workers at meat plants, which have become hotbeds for the virus since the pandemic took hold earlier this year. The outbreaks forced several plants to temporarily close, leading to supply shortages across the nation, before the Trump administration issued an order in April to keep them open.

The CDC said in its latest report that prolonged close contact was among the “distinctive factors” that increased the risk of infections at meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. The agency also said shared work spaces, transportation and housing expose meat workers to a higher risk of infection.

“The effects of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups are not yet fully understood,” CDC said in its report. “However, current data indicate a disproportionate burden of illness and death among these populations.”

Meat plant employees, labor representatives and inspectors have been warning for months that companies have failed to take enough safety measures to keep workers from becoming infected. The CDC described targeted workplace interventions and prevention efforts as “critical” to reducing the risk and health disparities among vulnerable populations at the plants.

Workers identified as Asian accounted for 12% of the cases reported with race and ethnicity, despite representing 6% of the overall workforce. Black employees represented 19%. White workers accounted for 13% while making up 39% of total employees.

Industry groups including the North American Meat Institute didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on the CDC’s report.

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