Published Friday, April 17, 2020
BY ART CULLEN
Knives of anxiety cut to our quick as we pray for the workers processing turkeys and hogs into our food. At Smithfield in Sioux Falls, at least 545 of 3,700 workers tested positive for COVID-19. The plant shut down. The Smithfield CEO warned that there could be spot meat shortages. Farmers who just put up hog barns are looking for a different plant, maybe Worthington or Windom, or just killing pigs as markets implode. After all, Storm Lake is full up with Columbus Junction shut down. Columbus Junction is now the hottest spot in Iowa with 186 cases among 1,400 pork plant workers.
Here, we live in a vacuum of information. Last we knew Buena Vista County had two reported cases. We do not know how many tests have been administered, when or how. We do not understand why tests apparently occur in Sioux Falls or Columbus Junction but not in the same number in Storm Lake. Testing does occur here but authorities dare not say much more. We do not know for certain what protective equipment is issued to essential workers in any number of industries like health care or food processing and distribution. We know that Tyson is trying to get what is needed for its employees to keep the lines moving. The federal and state governments that declare these industries essential, and command them to produce, offer little help but to exempt them from providing some worker protections.
Across the country, essential workers who are just getting by fear for their jobs but fear going to work. Workers with gray hair and or respiratory issues must report on-time. The man who lost his teeth at the welding station making farm equipment goes home to a wife suffering from immune deficiencies. He wishes he could get laid off with job security, or take an extended sick leave to at least protect her. It doesn’t look like we have a program for that.
And if a person loses their job because of a breakdown in the health system and the food system, or because they got sick working in an essential industry in close quarters, or because they broke down in fear, they should not necessarily expect that we will catch them when they fall.
As Sen. Chuck Grassley told Bloomberg Law:
“I don’t think anybody’s going to back legislation that would say we’re going to start giving healthcare to undocumented workers.”
Or to anyone else, really.
This is where the senator is wrong, again.
The nice lady in the grocery store working hard to keep her health insurance, just a few years from Social Security and suffering from an underlying condition, should be allowed a paid federal sick leave to keep her out of the workforce until the coast is clear. These folks work their whole lives in refrigerated warehouses or stocking shelves on their knees and deserve a break in catastrophic times. And it saves us money if we can keep them out of the intensive care unit. By now, most people understand this common sense. Would that our employment systems.
Everyone in Storm Lake is thinking about every worker, documented or not, because we’re in this boat together. Their health is our health, we can see. That is something politicians don’t understand in the comfort of their Virginia bunkers. We know that we are all better off when everyone can see the doctor without fear for the purse or detention. We know that immigrants, legal or not, are afraid of reporting illness because of the climate of fear that has been created over the past several years. Storm Lake is safer from crime, disease and poverty when everyone comes out of the shadows. Chuck Grassley might never understand that, but voters here do.
We all better understand by now how deficient our health care system is, and how it does not treat everyone the same — especially people of color who live all around us. This nation is on the way to universal health care, just after the next general election. We must have it. When 30 million or more are jobless and without private health insurance, it will break the backs of health care providers unless we provide access to everyone, regardless of circumstance. Health insurance costs were breaking the backs of small businesses and rural health providers before the coronavirus, and now they put these businesses on the brink.
Meantime, we worry and pray for those who put their lives on the line for us. If there were 545 at last count Tuesday in Smithfield at Sioux Falls, and if there were nearly 200 at Columbus Junction, and hundreds more in packinghouses from Colorado to Georgia, we shudder to think what could happen here. The worst of it is we just don’t know. Tyson is scrambling to protect its workers and keep the meat moving without much help from the government that is supposed to be issuing the orders. A clear direction from the governors of Iowa and South Dakota would be helpful to support an industry that is, in fact, essential and must keep producing. Federal support would have helped in securing PPE for essential industry stockpiles, as the government has been warned for the past 20 years. The USDA would have a plan to keep the food supply intact. A flexible immigration policy (with health screening) would allow workers into Iowa and out of death camps to fill holes left in the food supply chain. Livestock would be protected by ample vaccination banks. We have none of that. All of it must change. In a new dawn after this fog clears, it will change.