‘Frontline workers need to be respected, protected and paid’ says Mary Kay Henry, SEIU President

SEIU members march in Oakland against unsafe working conditions

SERVICE Employees International Union (SEIU) International President Mary Kay Henry says the Covid-19 relief package ‘is just a down payment’.

She released the following statement on passage of the package:
‘The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we need bold action to protect the health, safety and economic security of essential workers on the frontlines of this crisis so that they are finally respected, protected and paid.
‘Though not nearly sufficient, Congress has finally taken a small step that recognises inaction is unacceptable.
‘Working families will get money in their pockets to pay the bills, out of work Americans will not lose their unemployment, there is funding for vaccine distribution, cabin cleaners and other contracted airport workers will stay on the job, and some of the immigrant families – who were excluded from previous relief bills – will see the benefits in their own lives.
‘But this is just a down payment on what Congress needs to do to address the enormity of the crisis our nation is facing at this moment.
‘We can’t continue to give working people on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic just a pat on the back. We can’t continue to call these workers essential but treat them like they’re expendable.
‘Too many workers died and their families suffered while Republican congressional leadership insisted that the nation take a wait-and-see approach.
‘Every action Congress takes should be about supporting working people to make sure they can put a roof over their heads and put food on the table, and that they can stay safe and healthy.
‘And we definitely can’t follow the poor example of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump by playing politics with the lives of people, and putting corporate profit ahead of workers’ lives.
‘Leaders in Congress must pass comprehensive relief legislation that includes emergency help for our cities, towns and states to keep our schools and communities running, and makes sure that during a pandemic our healthcare system has the resources it needs and people have the testing, treatment, vaccines and coverage they require.
‘We also need to respect, protect, and pay all essential workers by increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, passing paid sick days and leave for all, and providing adequate personal protective equipment, hazard pay and other protections.
‘And relief and recovery means prioritising long-term care, which makes our families and communities resilient. That means both making care affordable and transforming long-term care jobs, whether in nursing homes or people’s homes, into family-sustaining union careers.
‘The road to recovery is long, but this moment of reckoning is an opportunity for us to build a path forward to a true multi-racial democracy and economy that works for everyone.’
Just before Christmas, America’s largest union for meatpacking workers and the association representing meat producers joined forces to urge all 50 US governors to urgently prioritise Covid-19 vaccination for frontline meat and poultry workers across the United States, in accordance with official Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance.
In a new joint letter to governors, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute) emphasised that quickly vaccinating the sector’s diverse workforce of some 500,000 employees across the country will maximise health benefits, especially in rural communities that often have limited health services, while keeping Americans’ refrigerators full and our farm economy working.
Covid-19 vaccinations can, in many cases, be administered through meat and poultry facilities’ existing health programmes and staff.
UFCW and the Meat Institute committed to assist employees with information and access to off-site vaccination, if needed, and to support vaccine information and education efforts.
UFCW International Vice President Mark Lauritsen said: ‘America’s meatpacking workers are bravely serving on the frontlines so that millions of families can put food on the table during this crisis.
‘To keep our nation’s food supply secure as the pandemic worsens, we need strong action now from our elected leaders to protect these essential workers in meatpacking plants.
‘As the largest union for America’s meatpacking workers, UFCW is joining industry leaders today in a unified call for governors in all 50 states to immediately prioritise meatpacking workers for access to the Covid vaccine.
‘American lives are at stake and these courageous men and women on the frontlines cannot wait any longer.’
Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said: ‘Health authorities around the world, employers, unions, and civil rights groups all agree – high priority access to vaccines is critical for the long-term safety of essential frontline meat and poultry workers who have kept Americans’ refrigerators full and our farm economy working throughout this crisis.’
UFCW released new Covid-19 infection numbers on December 23, announcing that among the union’s members across the country there have already been at least:

  • 363 frontline worker deaths and over 63,000 frontline workers infected or exposed
  • 130 meatpacking worker deaths and 20,600 meatpacking workers infected or exposed.

Prioritising vaccines for frontline meat and poultry workers will build on more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive Covid-19 prevention measures the industry has implemented since the spring.
This was not always the case.
Since April, the Midwest Centre for Investigative Reporting and USA Today reported on the impact of Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants and its impact on the workforce.
They singled out Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri.
From City Hall to the White House, officials let Triumph Foods stay open as hundreds of workers got coronavirus. Four died.
Triumph failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of Covid-19.
And local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers.
As outbreaks spread through meatpacking plants across the country, some experts warned that Triumph and others in the industry would choose production over worker safety.
Since then, workers and their unions have accused companies of doing the bare minimum to protect staff and time and again finding ways to keep their lines running.
The outbreak at Triumph Foods tells the story of the meatpacking industry’s response to the pandemic as a whole and its impact on those who work to keep meat on America’s dinner table.
Executives at the Triumph plant seemed to not worry about the virus. One of their executives on Facebook questioned how deadly the virus is, even sharing a conspiracy theory on Facebook about it.
Then there were all the half-measures at the plant to protect workers, such as erecting a tent as a second cafeteria so workers could space out – but not giving workers the extra time needed to walk outside.
One worker, Bernardo Serpa cut pork legs eight hours a day, six days a week.
He made the same cut roughly 12,000 times per shift, wielding a sharp knife as a production line worker at the second-largest pork processing plant in the country.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In one week, dozens of his colleagues at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, got sick. It prompted the company to test all of its 2,800 employees. In late April, large white tents appeared outside.
When it was Serpa’s turn, he got his nose swabbed. Then he went back inside where he stood elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with dozens of other potentially infected employees to await the results.
His test came back negative, but his relief was short-lived. One week later, the Cuban immigrant was among hundreds of his co-workers to contract the coronavirus in what would become one of the nation’s largest meatpacking plant outbreaks.
Serpa would spend nearly four months in the hospital, much of it in a coma. On October 16, he died.
At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10 hours a day, crammed side by side. Even after the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus programme that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill.
Triumph has changed its policy about testing, workers said. Now workers who are tested are sent home until they know their results.
The policy change was too late to help Bernardo Serpa, who couldn’t walk and relied on supplemental oxygen when he returned home from the hospital and rehab in late August. Maritza Drake, his wife of 26 years, had to bathe him and help him up the stairs to their home.
She was by his hospital bedside when he died in the early morning hours of October 16. Doctors told Drake that his kidneys and lungs failed. Now she awaits a chance to take her husband’s ashes back to Cuba.
Across the highway, Triumph continues churning out pork.
‘They think workers are like dogs,’ Serpa had told a reporter from his hospital bed in July. ‘If we don’t work, they get rid of us. And in any case they get new workers.’
Since the pandemic began, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened four investigations at Triumph, each in the wake of a coronavirus-related death.
In Serpa’s case, the agency has ruled his death wasn’t related to work and wasn’t from Covid-19, but Drake said the toll the virus took on his body led to his death. OSHA has not ruled on the other cases.
By mid-June, Triumph announced that ‘nearly all’ employees had recovered, noting around 50 people were still out sick. ‘Our production volume continues to improve due to the stabilisation of our workforce,’ it stated.
The union says workers still can’t distance from each other. Shift changes are particularly crowded. Union leaders continue to advocate for additional paid sick leave and hazard pay. Some workers say mask use is now enforced, while others say that it is inconsistent.