In rapidly diversifying Minnesota, COVID-19 has intensified the challenges immigrant workers face

by Cirien Saadeh

This story was originally published at Prism.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota meatpacking plants have been epicenters of both the virus itself, and of workers organizing in response to demand safer and more equitable working conditions. Now, as much of the United States seems to be moving on from the pandemic despite surging case and death numbers in many communities, COVID-19 worries remain top of mind for Minnesota rural meatpacking workers, many of whom come from the state’s growing immigrant communities and must contend with low pay and hazardous work—often while navigating language barriers and discrimination.

Last year, Somali immigrant workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Cold Spring, Minnesota, staged a massive walkout to protest working conditions during the earliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those workers was Bashiir, whose name has been changed because he fears workplace reprisals for talking to the media. He immigrated to the United States from Somalia in the late 1990s, and has worked in meatpacking for more than a decade.  

“I moved to the United States and then to St. Cloud for this job,” he said. Bashiir enjoys living in St. Cloud, and he has seen the community of immigrants from his home country grow throughout his time there, with many of them—including his family members—also finding themselves working in the meatpacking industry. The work has never been without its challenges, but the pandemic ratcheted up the risks significantly.

Navigating COVID-19

Several of Minnesota’s meatpacking plants experienced large COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020 and 2021. In particular, the Pilgrim’s Pride facility was host to a significant outbreak that sickened hundreds of employees in 2020.

Bashiir told Prism about working long days during the earliest months of the pandemic, shoulder-to-shoulder with other men, many of them immigrants like him.

“Every day, during COVID, we were on the line, too many men,” he said. He feared bringing COVID-19 home to his wife and young children, as well as their aging parents who lived with them. One of his family members who also works at the plant, Abdirahman (name also changed), also recalled widespread illness last year.

“People kept getting sick and we heard about the workers at plants getting sick from each other,” Abdirahman said.

Abdirahman pointed to the language barrier as one of the greatest impediments to keeping safe during the pandemic. The vast majority of workers of color in Greater Minnesota, and specifically in the meatpacking plants and farms (the biggest businesses in those regions), speak Spanish as a first language. State legislation has been devised since the 1990s to meet these gaps, but they often still require follow-through on the part of the employer and for the employee to know their options. This is particularly true for non-Spanish speaking employees like Bashiir and Abdirahman, as state law only requires that meatpacking announcements also get printed in Spanish. Local nonprofit organizations have worked to fill in the gaps and provide translated materials along with extra PPE, but often workers from communities like theirs may have limited access to translated announcements, materials, and news that would help them navigate COVID-19-related safety protocols in the workplace.

But even for workers who have access to translated materials and announcements to help keep them safe, other problems persist.

“The Spanish announcements are there and that is easier for us. For the other immigrants here, it’s harder for them,” said Antonia, a Latina who lives in Worthington, Minnesota, who requested anonymity to protect her family’s livelihood. Antonia used to work at the JBS Pork Plant in Worthington, Minnesota, but she left due to health issues and to change careers.

In Worthington, which lies southwest of St. Cloud and close to Minnesota’s border with Iowa, the story of the pandemic in the meatpacking plants was similar. In spring 2020, half of the workers at the JBS meatpacking plant were diagnosed with COVID-19. It wasn’t until after major outbreaks that safety protocols were changed at meatpacking plants like JBS. Many meatpacking workers have filed workers compensation claims for contracting COVID-19 at the plants, but the overwhelming majority have been denied because meatpacking workers aren’t eligible for the legal presumption that they contracted the illness at work, as some other workers are, like nurses.

“I worked in the plant, my husband works in the plant, my brother and sister-in-law work in the plant, my neighbors work in the plant, and my kids worked in the plant,” Antonia said. With all her family has at stake, she said that although the plants have been a reliable source of work for her community, she’s felt it’s important to be vocal about the stresses workers have faced during COVID-19. She’s been vocal in not just speaking with the media, but also local community organizers working to improve conditions for workers.

“I’ve gotten a reputation as a troublemaker now in my community for speaking up, but somebody has to,” said Antonia, who spoke about fear of reprisals from both meatpacking bosses, but also from her community where meatpacking is an economic driver.

While many meatpacking workers now have the protection of vaccination, the impact of the pandemic can still be felt today in the form of worker shortages. After so many outbreaks, “now, they say they don’t have enough people to work the plants,” Bashiir said. And at the same time, other workplace problems including job turnover, racism and systemic barriers, and job safety have persisted, especially as the demographics of Greater Minnesota shift away from a white majority.

Workplace challenges in a changing state

Greater Minnesota is a changing community as more and more communities of color, and specifically immigrant communities of color, make their way to towns outside of the Twin Cities and the metropolitan region. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, Nobles County, for example, which includes Worthington (where the JBS Pork Plant is located), is Minnesota’s most quickly diversifying city. In the past 10 years, the county’s population of color has grown from one-third to one-half of the county’s total population. People of color now represent two-thirds of the people in Worthington.

The meatpacking plants reflect the leading edge of the growth in communities of color. According to the Star Tribune, there are approximately 12,000 workers in Minnesota’s food production plants; 77% of those workers speak Spanish as a first language and are immigrants to the country and region. And according to KSTP, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s local TV news station, there are at least 15 cities with populations under 20,000 people with meatpacking plants across the state. Some of these plants are located in communities like Worthington, Long Prairie, Cold Spring, Wilmar, and other rural cities. Many of these meatpacking plants employ hundreds or even thousands of employees. The Long Prairie facility, for example, employs between 500 and 600 people, and the JBS pork plant in Worthington employs approximately 2,400 people.

And while meatpacking plants and farming are not the only jobs that immigrant communities and communities of color in Minnesota hold, those communities do make up a large percentage of that workforce. The vast majority of meatpacking workers, for example, are Latinx, Somali, Burmese, or Karen. According to Abdiaziz Odiriye, executive director of Community Grassroots Solutions, immigrant communities in Greater Minnesota mostly work in three fields: manufacturing or food processing, hospitality, and farming. This is echoed by the Center for Economic and Policy Research who released an April 2020 report on diversity in meatpacking employment as well as local reporting on employment trends. CGS works with mostly African immigrant communities in Greater Minnesota before, during, and after the employment process.

“These immigrant communities are the ones who are producing the things that we use, whether it’s food services or materials. They are the actual producers, the backbone of the economy,” Odiriye said.

But they go unprotected. According to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there even during non-pandemic times, meatpacking workers contend with many risks, including “exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” all of which can and do contribute to serious health problems.

Antonia, who works in Worthington, talks about the lack of care that many faced at the JBS facility. Production plant workers worked shoulder-to-shoulder before the pandemic and the expectation remained the same during much of 2020, even as more and more meatpacking workers got sick. Even now, state legislators are still dragging their feet on paying those workers for the risks they’ve faced during the pandemic.

But the risks aren’t all physical. Meatpacking workers are seen as crucial economic drivers in the small towns where they live, but that recognition has not carried over to their pay. On average, workers make less than $12 an hour, which means the work can be economically precarious and often subjects workers to discrimination.

According to Odiriye, despite how important these workers are, they rarely have access to higher positions within the companies they work for.

“It’s also hard for them to move into another line of work, despite their qualifications. The pay is also not really negotiable. They either take it or they don’t,” said Odiriye, who added that job retention is another key challenge.

“Immigrant and refugee employees are more likely to get a written warning compared to other employees, because of intolerance. If you miss something or you’re even just a minute late, you may get a warning, and three warnings means you can get fired at any time. At the same time, these employees are being prevented from getting a promotion.”

According to Odiriye, these workers can be trapped in low-paying and more dangerous jobs in these plants.

”Most of the employers in the production plants don’t respect the workers. They’re firing them, hiring a ‘number’ to replace them,” said Mohamed Goni, an organizer with the Greater Minnesota Worker Center. Goni moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the United States in 2012. He began this work after a job helping new immigrants find jobs through Lutheran Social Services. Goni said that many workers struggle to speak up to the media because they fear they will lose their jobs. “These corporations have bigger muscles in terms of strategies and muscles to make sure workers don’t speak up and share their stories.”

COVID-19 has both exacerbated many of these issues, and also shone a much brighter light on them, opening the possibility for change.

Last year, many Greater Minnesota workers spoke out when Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) launched investigations into meatpacking companies and widespread complaints of worker exploitation. According to Goni, the workers spoke about the pandemic, wage issues, staff shortages, and other issues, often specifically related to meatpacking plants.

Still, Goni said, it can be difficult for Greater Minnesota workers to organize.

“There’s a lot of unfair fighting to make sure these workers don’t organize. The companies strategically make sure workers don’t organize, cannot organize, and are only left with the option of leaving their job instead of staying at a place and organizing,” Goni said. Specifically, some meatpacking companies have engaged in union-busting to decrease worker power.

Despite everything, however, workers are still organizing. Pilgrim’s Pride workers have held vigils and walkouts in recent years, as have Jennie-O processing plant workers and workers at other plants as well.

Goni says that the Greater Minnesota Worker Center is planning a conference for Greater Minnesota workers which will include representatives from OSHA, unions, and others so that workers know what resources they have available to them. A date for that conference will be announced soon.

Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Read more at Daily Kos.