Published May 4th, 2020 at 10:42 AM
DODGE CITY, Kansas — In the days leading up to President Donald Trump’s mandate that all meatpacking plants stay open, workers in western Kansas’ meatpacking triangle were worried that precautions now being taken aren’t enough to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re right next to each other in the locker rooms,” Brandon Vasquez said about the possibility of social distancing at the National Beef plant in Dodge City, where he’s worked for about a year. “The lunch line … they put stuff on the floor where we should stay six feet apart. But a lot of people are not listening and there’s nobody enforcing (social distancing) in there.”
Overall, more than 540 COVID-19 cases and two deaths have been tied to Kansas’ meatpacking plants, the state health department said Friday. The three companies — National Beef, Cargill and Tyson — have not confirmed these numbers publicly.
In just two and a half weeks, positive cases in Ford County, which has two facilities, rose from 16 to 702 on Friday — surpassing all but one of Kansas’ most populous counties. Seward County, which has one plant and more than 500 COVID-19 cases, also has the state’s highest rate of infection: 23.33 positive cases per 1,000 people. And Finney County, home to a Tyson beef plant, has nearly 400 cases.
Across the country, plants that process everything from pork to chicken to beef have had to shut down due to clusters of COVID-19 — it takes multiple people to kill, skin, cut and package meats. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has said the state was “cognizant that (western Kansas) was a potential hotspot,” took “some proactive steps” and was told that the plants were “adhering to the safety guidelines.”
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t issue clear guidelines for meatpackers until April 25. And while many workers told the Kansas News Service that information about the virus was posted early in the plants in at least two languages and thorough safety measures have been implemented, some still want the plants to temporarily close for cleaning and to make sure workers can keep a better distance from each other.
National Beef, which has plants in Ford and Seward counties, did not respond to multiple calls or emails. Ford County declined to comment on this story. Cargill did not immediately respond to questions about their facility in Ford County.
Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston denied a request to tour the Holcomb plant in Finney County. A few days prior to Trump’s executive order, Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson issued a statement about its plants shuttering across the U.S., saying that “millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.”
Finney County health department director Colleen Drees said it is not confirming specific numbers of cases at any business.
“With COVID-19 it does spread easily. You see this with other meatpacking plants across the nation; we expect that same quick increase locally,” Drees said, adding, “As the situation develops, we will work with the (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) to release appropriate information.”
On April 9, Tyson confirmed cases among workers in the U.S., but did not specify whether in Holcomb, Kansas, had tested positive. On April 22, the Finney County Health Department said April 22 that there were multiple cases at the Holcomb plant.
Juan Gonzales cleans the Tyson plant. For at least a month, the facility has taken people’s temperatures, cleaned multiple times a day and provided hand sanitizer, he said. People also stand six feet apart.
But Gonzales fears going to work because so many people have been infected.
“We should at least close the plant for two weeks — to avoid contamination,” Gonzales said.
Tyson has supplied and required employees to wear face coverings since April 14, its spokeswoman said.
“We’ve also been educating team members on COVID-19, including the importance of following CDC guidelines away from work,” Croston said. “Our communications are translated into multiple languages in support of our diverse workforce.”
The Kansas News Service obtained emails through a Kansas Open Records Act request between Tyson and the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
On April 1, state agriculture secretary Mike Beam sent an email to Tyson, suggesting it check with a balloon factory “at El Dorado, KS and/or Wichita, KS” about getting gloves for employees. Beam said the factory “is apparently making latex gloves that may not meet the medical specs, but might be an option for your crews.” But Croston said Tyson was not able to use those gloves and did not accept them.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is still pressuring Kelly and the White House to protect meatpacking workers. On April 28, the union released a statement urging Tyson and other companies to protect food processing workers. The union also sent a letter to governors urging them to enforce social distancing, provide respirators, do testing and pay workers who are quarantined.
UFCW International President Marc Perrone said workers should be designated as first responders.
“Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the COVID-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs,” Perrone said.
National Beef’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon McGee, emailed Beam on April 10 about the UFCW Local Union 2, which covers its Dodge City plant. This was two days after National Beef announced confirmed COVID-19 cases at the plant.
“Our request is that they hear from the Governor’s office about the importance and special responsibility of food production workers and to ask the Union to encourage its folks to continue to report for work,” McGee asked, “… and certainly to not take any action to discourage attendance.”
Approximately a few hundred workers at National Beef’s Dodge City plant have stopped showing up for work, according to Vasquez.
Vasquez said temperature checks began in early April, before cases were announced, and said workers received masks sometime during the week of April 13.
Maintaining six feet of distance between himself and his fellow workers is not always possible. He walks back and forth in the plant’s slaughter section to do his job as a flanker, which means he skins the chests of cattle after they’ve been killed.
“I’m not that far apart from the next guy next to me,” he said. “No, we’re not six feet apart.”
After a carcass has been cut into pieces, it moves on a conveyor belt to Lupe Rodriguez, who trims fat from the meat.
She said she has worked at National Beef for seven months, and is concerned about being exposed to the virus. That’s why she’s been staying home with her son. Rodriguez is not being paid.
“When the daycare found out about the positives at the plant, she didn’t want to expose any of the other kids if I was exposed,” Rodriguez said.
Both Vasquez and Rodriguez said National Beef should have protected workers from the virus sooner. Rodriguez said hand sanitizer was given out in late March, and also said temperature checks didn’t begin until early April.
Vasquez said while temperature-taking prevents sick people from coming in, it was just too late.
“So they’re catching them at the door now, which is good, they’re not letting them inside. But it’s a little too late,” he said. “As they found their first case, they could’ve shut down for two weeks.”
Kansas is home to people from Vietnam, Myanmar, Somali, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Guatemala and dozens more countries, and many work in the meatpacking plants. Vasquez said he saw information posted about COVID-19 in English and Spanish on about March 22, but it wasn’t in languages like Somali or K’iche’, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala.
The Mexican Consulate in Kansas City, Missouri — an office that covers Kansas, Missouri and western Oklahoma — has been in communication with local governments in southwest Kansas as well as the meatpacking plants.
Consul General Alfonso Navarro said Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals can reach out to the consulate at any time with issues.
“If they have any concern or they feel that there’s a risk related to the work in terms of health or potential industrial safety,” he said, “they can always talk to the consulate in order to … if not to file a complaint, at least to share those concerns.”
Cargill’s plant is about two miles east of National Beef in Dodge City. Lucia Rangel has worked there for four years. She said she has access to soap and hand sanitizer, adding that the plant is disinfected multiple times a day.
“They’ve been disinfecting the bathrooms, the doors, anywhere that can get contaminated,” she said.
Cargill also has posted COVID-19 information in multiple languages, Rangel said: “The very first time they put up anything it was in multiple languages … in English, Spanish, Chinese and Somali.”
Coworker Cinthia Perez said the multiple precautions that Cargill is taking makes work feel like a safe place.
“When you go on break, they have two different groups so not everyone goes at same time,” Perez said. “There are only two people per table; they check your temp during break.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Dodge City traffic was noticeably thinner. But there were people out — some in masks, some not — visiting businesses, getting fast food drive-through service and going to work at National Beef and Cargill.
Rangel said leaving work can be more of a risk. She’s more scared of being exposed to the coronavirus in the community than at Cargill.
“Not everyone is staying at home,” she said. “You could be going to get some medication or food and someone brings their kids … walking down the street without protection.”
But with Kansas having been under a statewide stay-at-home order (aside from essential business, like meatpacking work) and the spikes in cases in the area, Dodge City ”now looks like a ghost town,” said Pablo Candia, who owns the bilingual newspaper Informative Hispanic American.
Candia has lived in Dodge City for 30 years and started the paper in 2012 after noticing an influx of immigrants as a freelance writer and substitute teacher.
“I realized that there was an emerging information gap among the changing community,” Candia said.
The paper has ceased printing its typical 1,500 copies a month because advertisers have closed their business due to the pandemic. It had been delivered to Dodge City schools, Sunday Masses in the area and even an hour away to Garden City.
“They continue reading us on our homepage,” he said of his readers, “but they are not urging us to come back. They understand the circumstances we are in.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Corinne_Boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.