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Iowa Meat Plants Struggle to Remain Open

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Meatpacking facilities across the country are struggling to stay open as their workplaces turn into hotbeds of coronavirus outbreaks. Companies in Iowa have resisted calls to close, even as case numbers soar. Earlier today, Tyson Foods announced it will close down its largest pork plant in the country. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: Thousands of people, many of them immigrants and refugees, work in Iowa's meat processing facilities. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder on production lines to keep up with the thousands of animals that farmers send their way every day. The new coronavirus is spreading fast in these conditions.

Tyson's largest pork processing plant is in Waterloo, and COVID cases are surging there. Worker advocates, local politicians and health officials have clashed with Iowa's governor, Kim Reynolds, who has resisted calls to shut down the plant. She's argued that closures would damage Iowa's ag industry and possibly threaten the nation's food supply chain. Gov. Reynolds was asked yesterday why the health of workers is worth the risk.

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KIM REYNOLDS: Then I want people to know that probably, you know, 50- to 70% of the United States population is projected to get this, so people are going to get it. It is very contagious, especially in large gatherings.

PAYNE: She's warned that plant shutdowns could force farmers to euthanize hogs.

Belinda Creighton-Smith is a pastor at Faith Temple American Baptist Church in Waterloo. She charges the governor with being more concerned about hogs than Tyson workers.

BELINDA CREIGHTON-SMITH: My concern is that if we don't close this plant down, we will find ourselves with a number of those who we love dead in their homes (laughter) or in - on ventilators dying from this virus.

PAYNE: In announcing the closure of its Waterloo facility today, the company cited worker absenteeism, community concerns and the positive COVID case count. Tyson says it has been taking steps to support workers, supplying personal protective gear and relaxing attendance policies. And it says workers will be paid while the facility is closed. Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University, says on a normal day, some 20,000 hogs are processed in the Waterloo plant. And he says farmers who ship their animals there and to other shuttered plants across the Midwest are in a bind.

CHAD HART: These hogs - you can't just hold them for four to six months, waiting for the market to improve or waiting for the market to change. When a market hog is ready to be processed, you have to move fairly quickly.

PAYNE: The closure in Waterloo will keep nearly 3,000 workers out of the plant for now. The company has facilities in five other Iowa cities, and they remain open, even as positive COVID numbers increase. One Tyson plant in southeast Iowa that has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases is now open again. That's despite the fact that if workers get gravely ill, there's no hospital within miles.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City.

(SOUNDBITE OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM'S "AMERICAN DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.
Kate Payne
Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.