Iowa unions want better COVID-19 protection

The Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo. CREDIT KCRG-TV9


By CBJ News Staff

Unions are pressuring Gov. Kim Reynolds and other state officials to improve worker safety and economic security in the face of growing illnesses and deaths from the coronavirus in the state’s factories.

The Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO has called for the state to enact a slate of measures including ramped up COVID-19 testing for essential workers, particularly in factories and meat processing plants, and for the state’s occupational safety and health agency to set guidelines for worker safety and health to protect workers from contracting COVID-19.

In a statement on April 20, the federation also called on the state to make any worker who contracts COVID-19 eligible for workers’ compensation, and a requirement that employers that shut down due to a COVID-19 outbreak be required to continue to provide pay and health insurance to employees.

Four United Food and Commercial Workers local unions asked Ms. Reynolds to direct the state’s meat processors to slow production lines, mandate the wearing of non-medical grade masks, and to issue further guidance on safety standards to halt the spread of COVID-19. The UFCW is the largest union representing meat processing workers in the state.

The letters follow urgent calls from advocacy organizations for African Americans and Latinos, which make up the largest percentage of the workforce at most plants. They include the Iowa Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which has called on JBS to improve worker safety at its Marshalltown plant. At the current line speeds in the plant workers exert themselves so much that they have difficulty breathing inside the protective masks, and take them off, the League’s political director said.

Nineteen elected officials in Black Hawk County signed a letter asking Tyson to temporarily close the Waterloo plant, and three Democratic state lawmakers filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging violations of federal safety standards at the facility.

While many businesses across the state have been ordered closed to reduce transmission of COVID-19, meat processing plants have been considered essential services because they produce food. Ms. Reynolds said on April 20 she would not order Tyson’s Waterloo plant to close, news partner KCRG-TV9 reported, citing the potential impact on the nation’s food supply and on the livestock industry. In Eastern Iowa, major outbreaks have also been reported at Tyson’s plant in Columbus Junction and at Iowa Premium Beef’s plant in Tama County.

The UFCW statement was signed by leaders of UFCW Local 6, 431, 440, 617, and 1149, all of which represent workers at plants in the state.

“Line speeds at food processing plants must be immediately slowed down to ensure a safe distance at all times between workers,” the UFCW letter said. “Food processing plants help keep Iowa running – our Iowa farmers sell their product to processing facilities, which makes them a critical component of our state’s economy. Our members in food processing plants then do their part to feed the entire country.”

“Workers are essential, but they are not expendable,” the Iowa Federation of Labor said in a news release. “If Iowa can lead the nation in producing and processing pork, there is no reason we can’t lead the nation in worker safety.” CBJ