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Meatpackers' Adult Children Demand Plants Provide PPE And Ensure Social Distancing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Meatpacking plants have become coronavirus hot spots in the U.S. More than 40,000 meatpacking workers have caught the virus. The workforce is largely immigrants and refugees, and they are often reluctant to speak out about unsafe conditions. Workers fear they'll be fired or even deported. Now their adult children are speaking out for them, demanding more PPE and social distancing. Esther Honig worked with Mary Anne Andrei to bring us this story from Nebraska.

ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: Back in March, Maira Mendez started asking her dad questions about conditions at his job. Like, were supervisors handing out face masks?

MAIRA MENDEZ: He said, they're giving us masks. It's like the beard net, but it's a full-faced one. And so then that's when I was like, that's not going to protect you. You're still breathing in air through those holes.

HONIG: Mendez says this is the moment she started to worry. Both her parents work at Smithfield, a massive pork processing facility in Crete, Neb. Smithfield says they got PPE to workers as quickly as possible. But not long after Mendez started asking questions, the plant confirmed its first case of COVID-19.

MENDEZ: That's when my dad started to kind of get scared, too. It was very like - it's here. It's real.

HONIG: As the number of cases grew at the Smithfield plant, Mendez realized it was up to her to do something. She's in her late 20s and says that as the child of Mexican immigrants, she's been speaking up for her parents all her life.

MENDEZ: When they came to this country, they came to just provide for their family. They didn't come to, I guess, change anything. That's why you don't see a lot of workers speaking out.

HONIG: In meatpacking towns in Nebraska and across the country, the job of advocating for basic protections like paid sick leave and PPE has been shouldered by the workers' children.

MENDEZ: Standing up for our parents is our responsibility.

HONIG: In America, meatpacking is well-known as a dangerous job. But now the long hours and close quarters make the plants susceptible to outbreaks of coronavirus. Experts suggest spacing out workers or slowing production lines, but Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan argues that jeopardizes the nation's food supply. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts backed that claim and refused to close plants.

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PETE RICKETTS: We're working very hard to make sure they can stay open because it's vital for our food supply. Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food?

HONIG: Meanwhile, these infections spill over into the community. Data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network found rural counties that have meatpacking plants with outbreaks have infection rates five times higher than the rest of rural America. Mendez feared an outbreak would happen in her town, and she wasn't alone.

MENDEZ: I can't remember who exactly added us, but someone started this group chat. It was a Facebook group chat.

HONIG: The group chat was made up of the kids of meatpacking workers across the state who shared with each other their parents' stories about conditions at Smithfield. Together, they decided they would take action and quickly organized a group - The Children of Smithfield.

MENDEZ: We're a lot of daughters who want to advocate for our parents.

HONIG: The group expanded beyond the core of daughters. They held weekly demonstrations - socially distant drive-by car protests...

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

HONIG: ...Outside the Smithfield plant.

MENDEZ: People over profit.

Oh, I've never heard of a protest happen at Smithfield, and we've been there for over 18 years.

HONIG: When the number of COVID-positive cases at the plant jumped sharply, the company planned to close it temporarily. Then President Trump said he would issue an executive order mandating plants remain open to ensure the nation's food supply. Smithfield officials reversed course.

MENDEZ: When workers were told one thing and came back the next day, that's when it opened up their eyes.

HONIG: That's when workers joined the protests.

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MENDEZ: People over profit.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

MENDEZ: I felt happy. I felt some hope that maybe we could make something happen together.

HONIG: We reached out to Smithfield. They wrote, our Smithfield family members are crucial to our nation's response to COVID-19. We thank them for keeping food on America's tables. But The New York Times reports that U.S. meatpacking companies, including Smithfield, exported a record amount of pork to China in April. Now a U.S. Senate investigation questions if the companies profited from the crisis. And after months of protesting, Maira Mendez sees herself as an activist.

MENDEZ: I've always been an advocate for speaking up for what you believe, but I wasn't out there. I wasn't on the streets holding a poster or being as outspoken as I was about this situation.

HONIG: The Children of Smithfield are now pushing for a law that protects essential workers in meatpacking plants. Similar protests, also led by children of workers, have taken place at at least a dozen plants across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig.

SHAPIRO: This reporting was done in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network and Latino USA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.