Revisiting Cannery Row: Why Meat Packing Plants Are Ravaged By COVID-19

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With COVID-19 working it’s way through the nation’s meatpacking industry, I recently found myself reflecting on my own experience working in a processor and the experience afterward of having a farm and raising some of our own meat.

Looking back I realized that a meatpacking plant is like a giant virus refrigerator. You could hardly ask for a better climate for a virus to flourish in.

In 2005 my future husband and I made the move from North Carolina to Ketchikan, Alaska. We were recently out of college and trying to make a start.

After working a summer job, I found myself unemployed. Up in Ketchikan there are very few year-round jobs which is what I needed because at 22 years old, we intended on staying up there indefinitely.

I got a job at one of the larger fish and seafood processors in town.

In 2005 on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry on our way to Ketchikan. Matt and I were 22 years old in this picture.

Revisiting Cannery Row: Why Meat Packing Plants Are Ravaged By COVID-19

What we processed

The main products we processed were salmon, roe herring, halibut, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and the caviar that came from the salmon. The saying was that the caviar paid the bills and the rest was profit. That is what happens when you are paying a fisherman $0.89 an lb (2006 dollars) for Coho Salmon and taking part of the guts and selling the product for 7-10 times what the fisherman got paid. Caviar is just soaked in salt brine and tested for bacteria before being packaged so the input costs are low. The fillets were sold at a good markup too.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

My Job

Officially I was just an office assistant but I filled a lot of other roles. My duties included tallying up the catch for a fisherman and issuing checks for the total amount. I handed out gear to workers, took the roll call on the floor to see who showed up, and I helped manage the caviar lab due to my degree in Environmental Science.

They figured it was a good fit for me to manage the bacteria tests that were required for every batch. Just so you know, the lower the level of bacteria in caviar the higher the grade and associated cost. The main tests were for fecal matter and E.Coli.

My other main role was inventory which involved walking around with a floor worker and counting literally everything in the building once per year. You got to see a lot doing that part of the job.

The Employees

The demographic of the employees was a mix of Ketchikan locals, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and people from the Philippines. The company commissary downstairs was a mix of Latin and Indonesian items. I used to smoke back then off and one. During lunch or breaks I would wander down there and get a pack of cigarettes and a few Lumpia. They had good eats and at the time I smoked a cigarette here and there.

A lot of employees came back year after year. I remember I had a friend from Romania. She was a student and could work the summer in AK and live on that the rest of year. There were a lot of hardworking and very determined people there but there were also a lot that had really big problems with drinking and drugs. The Northwest is like that. The long winters and a climate where it literally rained 13.5 ft a year on average wasn’t exactly a place that fostered a healthy mental state for many.

Living Conditions

Before we even get into the conditions on the inside on the processing floor and in the break room, let’s take a minute to fathom where employees spent the time they were not on the clock.

The processor had company housing that they provided for a fee of course. It was pretty basic. A couple of people shared a room and there were communal spaces. It was a two-story building with poor air circulation. It was very cramped. The housing laws in Alaska are really lax. I saw apartments that were actual dugouts in a basement. Southeast Alaska was big on shared bathrooms back then and probably still is. Rooms are tiny.

A private bathroom was a luxury that cost extra money if you were renting somewhere. The first apartment my husband and I lived in Alaska had a private bath and was considered the luxury apartment in the building despite the rusty water that came from the pipes occasionally and the smell of rotten fish during the salmon spawn. Like so many apartments in Ketchikan, ours used to be cannery housing back when there were even more in operation.

I only went to the employee housing a few times to take over food from the office or check on a few things but I can tell you that it was not kept up to a sanitary standard that most would find acceptable. Most of the workers living in company housing were men that were working long hours and not overly concerned about housekeeping. For some reason they had carpeting in the housing as well. Let’s just say that it is a terrible idea for cannery row workers.

On May 19, 2020 the NY Daily News ran a story about COVID-19 outbreaks at multiple Lousiana crawfish farms and processors.

Assistant Secretary of Health Alex Billioux stated “There was one outbreak in a group of workers who work in a crawfish farm and live, I think, in dormitory-like settings.”

The Temperature

No matter what type of meatpacking plant or fish processing facility you are talking about, the fact is that they have to be kept cold. Viruses thrive at these temperatures.

If one person gets any type of virus at all it is a big concern when you are running a meat processor. If the flu got started around the plant, it could be really bad.

The Humidity

COVID-19 and other viruses have a humidity range that is ideal and surprise, the humidity at a meat processor is often in the optimum range. There is no way around this. You are going to have a lot of moisture when processing meat and dealing with all the cleaning and sanitizing.

The inside of a fish processor is like a giant refrigerator with a lot of air flow.

The office was on the top floor of the building but all the processing work took place in the bottom. Imagine walking into a giant walk-in refrigerator with a ton of fans going and water all over the floor. According to some simulations, COVID-19 can stay in the air for quite some time. With the help of fans it can travel a lot further. Just putting space between a few people is not enough to stop particles from going a considerable distance.

The hours are long and the work is exhausting. People are run down and that means their immune systems are probably not top notch.

I worked in the office but I had to work really long hours too. During the busy times of fish processing season I would put in 56 hours in a week. There were plenty of people packing fish and gutting that were working the same hours. I don’t know how they were on their feet that much. The work is repetitive and there is a high risk of injury.

The stress of the job and the hours you work contributes to unhealthy habits.

Smoking, drinking, and drugs were normal daily habits for a lot of workers. A significant percentage did one or more of those things. That being said there were some that did none of those things. I am merely trying to point out that there was a significant portion that did and that is relevant in the workplace. Cigarettes were a welcome break during the 15 minutes you got and they were definitely the most common vice.

Energy drinks and caffeine helped. Of course there was harder stuff being used but that was hidden and much rarer than drinking and smoking.

You had to take roll every day to weed out those that couldn’t balance work and habits.

Most workers took the job seriously, especially those that worked year-round and not seasonally. Meat processors that hire a lot of seasonal help have to deal with a workforce made up of at least some people that only worked part of the year and lived off that money and whatever programs they qualified for. Since so many places in Alaska offered seasonal work, it was pretty easy to float from one processor to another.

Someone from the office had to go down and make sure that people were actually at work and make sure that someone didn’t have a friend clock them in. If you didn’t show up your time card got pulled and the situation was dealt with on an individual basis. Sometimes the foreman knew what was going on but sometimes you had to call the worker at home. This often resulted in talking to a hungover and half asleep person with a litany of excuses.

The hierarchy of the work place contributes to extremely poor morale. This means workers are not going to listen or respect some rules. They also are not going to report things that should be brought to the attention of management because who is going to listen to them?

One thing I knew from a young age was that you don’t get anywhere by acting like you are on a level a million times higher than your employees. I quickly learned that this was not how some liked to approach employee interactions.

I was just 23 when I was working at the cannery but I quickly noticed some things about the hierarchy. For starters there were people in the office that thought they were superior human beings compared to those they employed. There was only enough respect to keep them working. Here are a few examples:

So gloves that go up to your elbow and protect you when filleting fish that sells for top dollar around the world, cost a bit. Workers were forced to come up to the office and ask for gloves if they damaged them while working. The office manager always acted like they did it on purpose. They could never just get a pair of gloves without a guilt trip.

Floor supervisors could sometimes take a few pair of the cheaper gloves down to the floor but that was closely monitored too.

No one from the office ever just checked in with the employees on the floor to see how things were going. They never sat in the break room with them and talk. I didn’t know that until I started making an effort to interact with them more. I found that it was enjoyable to sit and talk to them during breaks. We had some common ground. Farming and a DIY attitude are traits found all over the world.

A lot of the employees were there because they wanted something better and a job in meatpacking was a step towards that. What doesn’t seem like much of an opportunity to some means a lot to those coming from worse circumstances.

After the main season was over, the processing and boxing up of fish still went on but there was sometimes not that much to do in the office but they kept us all on full time up there. The rule was that you couldn’t just sit around and look at the news when your work was done. Office people had to find something to do.

I started to get pretty annoyed after asking everyone in management if they needed any help, that there was nothing for me to do so I just got my rubber boots and rain gear on and said “I have a radio if anyone needs me but I will be downstairs packing fish.”

So that began my time packing fish on the floor. I didn’t think much of it but the floor workers were shocked because as they said “No one from the office has ever come down and worked with us before”. When I heard that I was the one that was shocked. Maybe you feel differently but I personally think that if you run a business you should sometimes be among your employees.

You should take the time to see how the operation is really working and learn a little about the people. Just showing a little bit of basic humanity as a manager goes a long way. As a 23-year-old it was amazing to me that people twice my age had never learned the lesson of knowing who is doing what and what is really going on at a company.

Another time I had the hierarchy pointed out to me was when it came time for the company Christmas party. There was one person that was technically a floor worker but he basically ran a lot of the show. I thought it was natural that he would be invited to the formal attire Christmas party held for the office staff. He was part of management after all. When I asked about him and his wife getting to go I was told he was a floor worker and that meant he had to go to their party.

Oh I haven’t mentioned that our party was held at the fanciest place in town and ran about $100 a plate plus drinks. There were also giveaways done by drawing names. The floor workers got a bunch of take out and deli trays and they definitely didn’t have an open bar with free top-shelf drinks.

While I understand that there is going to be a difference at any company, the contrast was extreme. I enjoyed the party but I can honestly say I would have felt that it was more in the Christmas spirit if we had done something smaller and used the money to help some of the families in the community that really needed it. We could have had a pretty fancy party for $30 a plate and did something good for some other people.

Workers are told they are “essential” but what they feel is expendable.

As COVID-19 has found its way into more and more processors, employees are feeling more and more like they are seen as expendable. While other industries have shut down, food processors have kept working when at all possible. Employees are beginning to demand more transparency in the workplace. They want to know basic information. They are asking to be told when infections are confirmed. Some plants have not told employees soon enough so that they can take measures to protect themselves. By the time some workers know, it is already too late.

It was two weeks after an employee working at Tyson Plant in Georgia died before the company announced the death to the other workers. 56-year-old Elose Willis had worked at the Tyson plant for 35 years before passing away from COVID-19.

The larger meat processors face even more challenges than what I have described.

The bigger the plant the harder it is to keep clean. The Tyson and Smithfield plants that have shut down are behemoths. They process a high percentage of the nation’s pork and beef. That type of volume makes sanitation really difficult. Some people that work in these plants come out of them refusing to eat the products produced at them. The Smithfield Plant in Sioux City, SD is closed indefinitely, resulting in a 4-5% loss of the nation’s pork processing capacity.

That is just one plant.

Workers have to stand side by side and a lot of things get handed off from one person to the other. When I worked at the fish processor, workers were elbow to elbow when a big boat came in. The only lunch area was a really cramped break room, the cannery housing, or the cantina in the building. People sat side by side ate quickly and sucked down a cigarette as fast as they could.

At big meat processors, there are thousands of employees and multiple shifts. That is a lot of people moving in and out at any given time. Now add into the equation all the trucks coming to the processor and all those leaving with a load of meat bound for the nation’s restaurants and grocery stores.

I have read that some processors have decided to have less people working a line at once. While that may sound good to those of us reading about it, the truth is that it means drastically reduced production capability and even more likely, that those that are working the line with less people are being forced to work faster and harder which leads to more accidents and unhealthy workers.

Tyson has made a commendable effort to reduce the spread but it is not enough. Workers are separated by clear barriers and they are wearing masks and face shields. That just makes an already difficult job that much harder. Some of those that are reading this may know what it is like to work hard while wearing a respirator or mask.

If you have never worked in one before I can tell you that it makes you feel more tired. In the summer I have spent 4 hours straight in 80 F heat and direct sun, walking steep slopes and spraying pesticides and fungicide while wearing either a Tyvek suit or clothing that covers every inch of skin. It is exhausting but farmers have to do this all the time.

In my experience, meatpackers try to cut corners and they don’t take worker safety seriously enough.

Workers need easy access to safety gear. While some meatpackers do better at this than others, it is something that needs to be accessed at any facility. If someone has to leave their station and walk 300 yards to get something they need to perform their job safely and even then might feel that they are looked down upon for asking, they are more likely to use a piece of gear beyond what is safe for them and others.

When the meatpacking workers get sick and suffer, the surrounding community does as well.

A recent study found that counties in the USA that have meatpacking plants in them have twice the national average of COVID-19 infections. This is not surprising considering that the workers are going shopping, running errands, and commuting from throughout the area. Community spread is inevitable with such conditions.

The map above was published on May 22, 2020, and shows the rate of infection per 100,000 residents. Between this map and the FERN map, you can get a good idea of the seriousness of the situation.

There is no good solution. If COVID-19 is in an area with a meatpacking plant, the ideal conditions present are going to be a major vector for spreading the disease. Since it is not realistic to shut down all the meatpacking plants in the USA, it seems that this problem can only be solved through a vaccine that is still a long ways from being considered a viable solution or the virus mutating into a less serious form. Even if a vaccine is available soon, plenty of people are not going to take it, myself included.

Current Outbreaks At Meatpacking Plants

The situation is constantly changing. When one looks at the numbers though it is clear that the number of infected workers and the infection rates in their surrounding communities is on the rise.

On May 21, 2020 Zero Hedge reported that 570 workers at a Tyson plant in Wilkesboro, NC tested positive even though many did not show any symptoms. This is equivalent to 25% of the workforce at that plant.

The number of known infected workers is well over 16,000 at the time of this writing. Outbreaks are being found regularly. If you are interested in knowing the most up to date figures or want to see where the nearest outbreaks are to you, check out the interactive map at FERN. I was not familiar with this organization before finding the map but it is easy to use and allows you to get detailed info on food and meat processing facilities that have COVID-19 cases.

It is not just meat processors. Other food processors are dealing with outbreaks but the media is not reporting it.

The FERN map I linked to includes fruit, vegetable, and mushroom farms. There is currently a cluster of cases at the Monterey Mushroom Farm in TN, the Stemlit Growers in WA, and many others. These are major brands found in stores across the country. While meat is the big story in the news, there is a growing problem throughout the food supply chain.

What about replacement workers or temporary labor?

Most people are not going to want to step into a job where the risk is so high even when there is not a deadly virus spreading throughout the workplace. Slaughtering and meatpacking are intense jobs that require training, the ability to mentally and physically handle the butchering and meatpacking process. I know how it is to butcher a large animal. My husband Matt and I have butchered many hogs and cattle on our farm with little assistance. It takes some getting used to. The smells are enough to make plenty of people sick to their stomachs.

One of the smaller pigs we butchered on the farm when we were living in a camper and building our house. This was taken in 2009. We did all the processing at home rather than taking is somewhere to get cut up. During the cold part of the year you can hang the meat yourself or quarter it and put it in a freezer with a temp regulator that keeps it in the 38 F range or so.

It is also worth noting that many meatpackers rely on immigrant labor. In fact, they have to take some pretty drastic measures to get workers. The fish processor I worked at would go to California and recruit migrant workers. They also recruited in Europe. On top of that they had to offer some lucrative incentives such as paid airfare to get to Southeast Alaska and they often paid the airfare to get them back home at the end of the season. There were also bonuses offered if you worked the entire season and ended it in good standing.

As far as wages went, people did start out at around minimum wage but they got steady increases in pay and any time they worked past 40 hours was time and a half. There were people in the fillet room making more than I did in the office. My point is that they were not just recruiting to get the cheapest labor possible, they had a big operation to run and a lot of positions to fill doing a job that is not attractive to a lot of people.

More automation in the meatpacking industry is likely since social distancing of humans is not realistic.

Like so many industries, meatpacking plants are probably going to go towards automation as a solution, especially if COVID-19 continues to be a major concern for a more extended period of time. Automation means fewer jobs but it solves the problem of trying to keep as many people healthy or shutting down plants entirely until the infection rate is under control.

It would take a lot of overhauls and growing pains to switch over to automation but replacing at least part of the workforce with machines would make it easier for other workers to practice social distancing measures.

Some meat packers are doing what they can to provide some gear and prevent spread but with something as contagious as COVID-19 and meatpacking plants providing a perfect enclosed climate for it to spread, I doubt these measures will be enough to keep things flowing and profitable.

Why can’t Americans buy an animal and have it butchered at a small processor?

There have been a lot of memes on social media telling people to buy an animal directly from the farmer and have them deliver it to a small slaughterhouse. If only it was that simple. The truth is that laws vary a lot and what some processors will do varies. Plenty of small slaughterhouses will not take a live animal. When we butcher a large animal like a cow on the farm here in North Carolina, we have to skin it, gut it, and take off the feet and head.

Skinning and gutting a cow on our farm. This was a few years ago.

The cow is then loaded in a truck and driven to the butcher that lets it hang for 2 weeks and then cuts it up however you want. There are inspected meat facilities that will take live animals but these require appointments and they mostly do business with larger farms that are having many animals processed because they have a commercial meat handlers license and either sell off the farm or distribute through local grocery stores.

I have talked to various farmers and another issue that has come up is that the small processors are so busy they cannot possibly take on any more custom orders.

I applaud people for trying to find a way to make things work and buy from their local farmer but the meat supply chain and the rules and regulations make it a lot harder to do things that seem simple when your first think about them.

Raising your own protein at home is possible on some level even if you don’t have a lot of space.

Sheep butchering a few years ago.

My husband and I have been raising a portion of our own meat for a long time. We used to raise a little more. At the moment we have sheep and chickens. In the past we raised pigs on pasture and cattle too. Shiitake mushrooms contribute some additional protein as well. Bean sprouts are excellent sources of protein. My readers come from all different backgrounds and I like to include realistic options for as many people as possible.

I encourage you to take a look at my post “Protein At Home: Rabbits, Quail, Chickens, Bean Sprouts, Mushrooms and Beyond”. I like to eat meat and while some of the hardcore anti-meat crowd are calling this the end of meat, I am not giving up eating it that easily. That being said there are options in my post for all diets.

If you think you cannot butcher yourself, take a look at my article on getting over being squeamish for some tips. You can do it if you put your mind to it and if you find out that you just can’t you may at least find that you have a new appreciation and respect for those that are working hard and risking their lives daily to get meat to the store for you to easily buy.

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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