Life in the Time of the Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.
This anonymous thirtysomething works at a Tyson Foods beef plant in Amarillo, Texas. On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order requiring slaughterhouses to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic, reversing the closures of many of these plants. Across the country, at least 5,000 meat processing workers have tested positive for the virus, and 20 have died.
Most people don’t understand where their meat comes from. They just pluck it off a grocery-store shelf and cook it up. They don’t see us workers, what we go through to get it to them. And they don’t realize what it means when President Trump compels us to go back into the slaughterhouses in the middle of an outbreak. He says we’re part of critical infrastructure, that we’re essential workers. Well, I don’t feel critical. I don’t feel essential. I feel sacrificial.
To work in a slaughterhouse you have to be physically and mentally strong. If you’re not it’s going to tear you apart. I grew up on a Texas farm and working hard has never bothered me. When you start, they teach you how to stretch out your hands, how to avoid getting stabbed by the equipment, how to work a blade. I’m on the processing side, which is dangerous; the kill floor is even more brutal. That’s where the cattle file in, trucked in from the back entrance so you never see them. When they arrive, they’re shocked between the eyes with a stun gun and hung alive upside down. Their throats are cut, and they bleed out. It’s kept hot in there — up to 100 degrees in the summer — so the blood doesn’t congeal. The carcasses are stripped of their hide and slit down the center. Every organ is removed. What isn’t designated for human consumption — tripe, kidney — is turned into dog food. There’s not one part of the cow that isn’t sold. The carcass is placed in a gigantic freezer for 24 hours. All day long, USDA officials are walking around, watching us, testing every cow for every disease.
The next day, it comes out of the freezer and into production. That’s my end. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m an animal lover; if I had to look a cow in the eyes and kill it myself, I couldn’t work there. But I have bills to pay and few employment options, and by the time it reaches us, it’s just meat and bones. It’s around 32 degrees in processing because meat is easier to cut frozen, so we wear our regular clothes layered up, three pairs of pants and two shirts and a jacket. And then we have on safety glasses, mesh sleeves, a mesh apron, and a mesh glove. If you’re right-handed, your knife is in your right hand and your glove is on your left, which you use to hold the butcher’s hook, so you can easily pull the meat off. Each person has an assigned part to prepare: round, rump, shank, flank. The cuts are pushed to the center of the belt and sent on to packaging. Then it’s sent out to shipping, stacked onto palettes, loaded onto trucks, and delivered to supermarkets. Then a consumer walks into Walmart and buys a steak.
We mostly work this job for the money. Around here, minimum wage is $7.25, but at Tyson you start at around $16, with full benefits and a 401k. You can make up to $22 for the most hazardous jobs, like working saws and specialized machines that pull out the biggest bones, or digging out the ribs by hand with a hook and a razor-sharp knife. I’m an American but I have a criminal record so it’s hard to get a good job like this. I’d say 90% of the other workers are immigrants. Walking into work is like walking into the world contained in an Amarillo factory building: Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, Christians, Burmese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somalis, South Africans, East Africans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans.
So I took the job for the pay, but I came to love it. I learned new skills: How to sharpen a knife so it would cut like butter through frozen meat, how to take the whole back side of a cow apart by myself. I liked the physicality. I could rent my own house and buy a car. If a family member needed to borrow some money, I could provide. I was able to get my life together. I’ve been clean for years, supporting myself with honest work. It meant everything when my mom said to me: “You’ve come so far and I’m so proud of you.”
But since this pandemic hit, I hate it. I hate that we only got surgical masks on April 13. I hate that people walk around with their faces uncovered, masks on their chins; the signs about how to wear them properly are all in English, even though most people don’t speak or read it. They put up plexiglass barriers in the cafeteria, but what’s the point when we pass each other nearly touching in the hallways, work face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed together on the production line, where dozens of us touch the same meat?
They’re checking for fevers at the door and spraying our hands with alcohol again and again, and cleaning even more thoroughly on the night shift. But you can be asymptomatic with Covid-19. You can be sick without a fever. And folks keep coming in because they have families to support here and back in their home countries. Recently, a co-worker could hardly breathe but he didn’t have a fever so he kept working because he had people in his country who needed that money to eat.
Tyson only implemented these precautions two weeks ago; the virus had already spread. Before Covid-19, we processed 450 head of cattle an hour, and now it’s 200. Nine hundred people worked a shift and now over half are missing. We don’t know if they’re scared or if they’re sick; we have no information. I heard through a nurse in our clinic that there’s at least 43 confirmed cases here. Over in Tyson’s Iowa pork plant, there are 180 at least, and rising. We’re a bigger facility. What’s coming?
Since the day I was hired, the company has repeated to us: “Tyson’s all about safety.” If you’re about safety, and you care about your employees, then why are we open? Why didn’t we close when this started so we could’ve stopped it? Why are there people coming to work sick? John Tyson, the CEO, put out a full-page ad in national newspapers saying there’s a dent in the food-supply chain, and Trump agrees and sends us back in? It’s not about the food supply chain. No: There’s a dent in his pocket because his plants are closed. We have enough meat in America to last us a couple weeks, or a month. People could also just not eat bacon burgers for a little bit. Tyson could clean out the plant and make sure the workers were healthy. This is about money. This is what they’re always telling us: If the production chain stops for a minute, the company loses $700,000. This is about how if Tyson had to close to handle the virus, they would have to pay us while we stayed home. This is about the fact that most of the workers are immigrants. They will never strike, and they’ll come to work no matter what because they have family counting on them here and back home.
Meanwhile, we aren’t getting hazard pay. The company can go and buy a huge thermal camera that reads people’s temperatures, but can’t pay us more? Our union rep told us we were going to get a $500 bonus in July. It’s not even May, and all you’re going to give me is a $500 bonus in July, as long as I don’t have any unexcused absences? How is that fair?
I have so many friends laid off in the oil field industry, so I know I’m blessed to still have a job, but I don’t want to risk my life to keep it. At the end of a long day, I go home and I’m so isolated and alone. I can’t see anyone because I don’t want to be responsible for their funerals, in case I’m infected. I’m not naïve, but it’s hard to accept that to Tyson corporate, we are completely replaceable. If I died today, there’d be somebody in my job tomorrow. But to my family and friends? To my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my mom and dad and siblings, my cousins? To my loved ones, I am not replaceable.