Cudahy Coronavirus Controversy
Is Patrick Cudahy safe for workers? Are Cudahy officials protecting the community?
Across the country, meatpacking plants are COVID-19 hotspots.
“More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest,” a joint report by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found. “Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties.”
In metro Milwaukee, the Patrick Cudahy plant has sparked controversy for how the company and the city of Cudahy has handled a potential hot spot. Cudahy is the classic company town, created in the 1890s when industrialist Patrick Cudahy purchased 700 acres to create a new municipality named after him, where he could locate his new meatpacking plant and escape the taxes in Milwaukee. But local ownership was lost in 1984, when the company was sold to huge meatpacker Smithfield Foods Inc., which in turn was bought out by a Chinese conglomerate in 2013. In short, the company town’s company is now Chinese, run by WH Group Ltd, under its CEO, the billionaire Wan Long.
But the Smithfield Foods name is still used in America and the pork-processing plant located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is its biggest: “a massive, eight-story white box perched on the banks of the Big Sioux River” and “the ninth-largest hog-processing facility in the US,” as the BBC reported. “When running at full capacity, it processes 19,500 freshly-slaughtered hogs per day, slicing, grinding and smoking them into millions of pounds of bacon, hot dogs and spiral-cut hams.”
And most of the workers at these plants are minorities. The workforce at the Sioux Falls plant “is made up largely of immigrants and refugees from places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador. There are 80 different languages spoken in the plant,” the BBC reports.
Conditions in such plants don’t allow for social distancing. Indeed they are almost perfectly designed to spread COVID-19 . “On a regular day, we work shoulder-to-shoulder for hours and only get two 15-minute breaks a day and a half-hour for lunch,” writes the Missouri worker. “We wear the same gloves and masks all day unless they rip, and we don’t have time to wash our hands regularly. The cafeterias and hallways are crowded, and so is the area where we clock in. Most people only wear masks when they’re working on the line, not when they’re in the rest of the plant.”
The result of such conditions has been the rapid spread of the disease, as the New York Times reported: “At least 10 workers in meatpacking and three workers in food processing have died of COVID-19… About 6,500 employees either have contracted the virus, missed work because they had to self quarantine, or are waiting for tests or show symptoms.
The plant in Sioux Falls had so many cases that it was forced to temporarily close. “It has reported 518 infections in employees and another 126 in people connected to them… making it among the largest known clusters in the United States,” an AP story noted. “The concentration of cases has highlighted the particular susceptibility of meat processing workers, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregate in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.
And as those workers get infected, the disease spreads to their family members and friends, as a suit against the company in Milan, Missouri charges: ”Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die – all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic.”
At the Smithfield-WH Group’s Patrick Cudahy plant, according to a Journal Sentinel story, “Workers weren’t provided face masks until mid-April, when many of them had already tested positive, they said. Face shields arrived days later… ‘They should have taken measures faster so that the disease wouldn’t spread,’ said one of the workers.”
“One plant worker with asthma said that when he asked for a mask last month, an official at the company declined his request because if he was provided one, Smithfield would ‘have to do it for everyone else,’” the independent publication The Intercept reported.
One worker “brought his own mask and was reprimanded to Smithfield’s human resources department, which told him that wearing his own mask would result in suspension” the story continued. “After days of back and forth between the plant managers and workers, the Cudahy plant allowed its workforce to bring its own masks. Some appeared at work with homemade cloth masks, but most continued to work without basic safety equipment, such as N95 masks…There are currently no Plexiglas dividers between workers, though UFCW Local 1473, which represents workers at the plant, has called for such safeguards to be installed.”
TV station Fox 6 did several stories on the plant and found the City of Cudahy kept changing its story and was not transparent about its oversight of the plant. “Two weeks ago, there were 28 cases [of COVID-19] tied to the plant. Now? No one is saying. The Cudahy health officer said the mayor won’t allow her to talk about it,” Fox reported in late April.
“Neither the city nor Smithfield are cooperating,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Steven Shea, whose district includes the plant, told Fox. “I can’t think of any reasons why either the city or Smithfield is keeping these numbers from the press.”
Fox 6 heaped on more scorn, noting that in an email to the station, “Cudahy Mayor Tom Pavlic said he’s relying on the advice of health officials, including his own, to determine when to release testing information. In other words, he said he’s relying on the advice of the very same health officer he won’t allow to talk to the media.”
Patrick Cudahy, too, was temporarily closed, like the South Dakota plant. Meanwhile, Cudahy officials seemed to become more proactive. On May 1, the Cudahy Health Department announced that 85 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Patrick Cudahy plant, which was “three times the number of cases FOX6 News reported back on April 15,” it noted.
In news releases shared with Urban Milwaukee, the Cudahy Health Department has said 503 employees at the plant were tested over a five-day period, starting April 24. That sounds impressive until you consider that there are more than 1,000 employees at the plant. Since 85 percent — or 17 percent of the 503 employees tested — had the disease, wouldn’t you want to test all the employees?
In response to this question from Urban Milwaukee, the department’s spokesperson Robert Whitaker sent another press release, which said the department, working with the company and county and state officials, had tested “all employees” at the plant, but then went on to say 503 employees were tested, which would be half or less of the work force. So which is it? I asked Whitaker. As of publication I hadn’t gotten an answer.
The problems at Patrick Cudahy are similar to those found in meat-packing plants across the country. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera, which has been advocating for workers at four other meatpacking plants in the state, notes that companies have been slow to make changes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Workers feel like they are being treated as disposable.”
Which is horrible for the workers. And a threat to all of us, because it will help a deadly infection spread.
Update: After publication Mayor Pavlic forwarded a response to Urban Milwaukee noting that the testing of employees at Smithfield’s “was voluntary and was offered to all employees. 503 employees were tested during the recent initiative.”
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