Sat | Jul 4, 2020

Worker shortage looms in heavy meatpacking

Published:Wednesday | May 27, 2020 | 12:07 AM
In this May 23, 2020 photo, Paulina and Marcos Francisco pose for a photo in front of their house in Sioux City, Iowa. They bought the home after years of working in a meatpacking plant and other food-processing jobs.
In this May 23, 2020 photo, Paulina and Marcos Francisco pose for a photo in front of their house in Sioux City, Iowa. They bought the home after years of working in a meatpacking plant and other food-processing jobs.

When Martha Kebede’s adult sons immigrated from Ethiopia and reunited with her in South Dakota this year, they had few work opportunities.

Lacking English skills, the brothers took jobs at Smithfield Foods’ Sioux Falls pork plant, gruelling and increasingly risky work, as the coronavirus sickened thousands of meatpacking workers nationwide. One day, half the workers on a slicing line vanished; later, the brothers tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

“It was very, very sad,” Kebede said. “The boys teared up seeing everyone.”

The brothers – who declined to be identified for fear of workplace retaliation – are among roughly 175,000 immigrants in US meatpacking jobs. The industry has historically relied on foreign-born workers – from people in the country illegally to refugees – for some of America’s most dangerous jobs.

Now, that reliance and uncertainty about a virus that’s killed at least 20 workers and temporarily shuttered several plants fuel concerns about possible labour shortages to meet demand for beef, pork and chicken.

Companies struggling to hire before the pandemic are spending millions on fresh incentives. Their hiring capability hinges on unemployment, industry changes, employees’ feelings about safety, and President Donald Trump’s aggressive and erratic immigration policies.