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Immigrant Meatpackers Say They're Being Blamed For Spread Of COVID-19


The meatpacking industry relies a lot on immigrant workers, and they have suffered more than others from the pandemic. In Nebraska, many who work in the industry feel as if they're being scapegoated as carriers of the virus. Here's Christina Stella of NET.

CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: Gladys Godinez is a community organizer in the town of Lexington. She still hears stories from workers of cramped locker rooms, quickly soiled masks and limited sick pay.

GLADYS GODINEZ: Workers are just trying to push through, trying to survive and trying to do the best that they can with what they have.

STELLA: She sees workers who have been traumatized by a lack of both resources and protections. At times, some here blame them for not being able to protect themselves. There have been comments like this one by Governor Pete Ricketts.


PETE RICKETTS: What do we see in places where we see a lot of spread of the virus? Well, we see people concentrate together, and that's certainly true with our food processors, where you have people together. But it can also be true in households if you have multiple generations of people living together.

STELLA: In Nebraska, two-thirds of the meatpacking workforce is made up of immigrants. Sixty percent of meatpackers are Latino. Advocate Yolanda Nuncio finds comments like that offensive.

YOLANDA NUNCIO: It's much easier to say that it's because of family values and family living situations than it is to say it's because, perhaps, the working environment isn't the safest for families, for employees or for the community.

STELLA: She says it's not uncommon to find extended Latino and immigrant families living together for cultural reasons.

NUNCIO: But the spread of the virus wasn't a cultural issue.

STELLA: Scapegoating meatpacking workers isn't unique to Nebraska. After hundreds of cases closed a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem said 99% of infections started at home. In Nebraska, Governor Ricketts later walked back his comments.


RICKETTS: Actually, I don't think that is something that is unique to the food processing industry. I think there's a number of people who live in housing that could be difficult to socially distance.

STELLA: The governor also urged Nebraskans not to stigmatize highly impacted groups like Latinos, who make up nearly half of Nebraska's COVID cases. Nearly two months later, though, State Senator Tony Vargas worries the damage is already done. He says, with 23 of Nebraska's beef, pork and poultry plants reporting outbreaks, some meatpacking workers have been turned away from retail businesses or even asked where they work before they could get their hair cut.

TONY VARGAS: In the time of a public health crisis, when our first gut reaction - even unconsciously - is to victim blame, we have a problem. It took weeks for us to get Spanish-language education material, let alone at the state level.

STELLA: In Lexington, Gladys Godinez says it's bigger than language challenges. She notes that affordable housing remains a persistent problem for many workers.

GODINEZ: We do have households that have two to three families within a household, but it is not because they want to, right? It's because they need to because they cannot afford rent. What are you doing to help your community to change that?

STELLA: The state has provided temporary quarantine housing for essential workers, but Godinez wants to see a vibrant labor movement across the state. Only half of Nebraska's affected plants are union shops. For now, organizers are keeping their eyes on safety, pressuring Nebraska's politicians to pass new mandates, like requiring social distancing to help prevent a second surge.

For NPR News, I'm Christina Stella in Lincoln.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "OF THE WRIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christina Stella