Immigrant Legal Center—our JFON affiliate in Nebraska—has been working very closely with the Nebraska meatpacking community now in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, we wrote about the dangerous conditions confronting these—mostly immigrant—workers in the plants where they make their living in Essential does not equal Expendable.
The young woman who wrote this letter is the daughter of parents who have worked in the meatpacking industry for nearly ten years. She prefers to remain anonymous so as not to endanger her parents’ jobs.
May 26, 2020
I immigrated with my family to Lexington, Nebraska in the early 2000s when I was just two years old. Obviously, I don’t remember much, but I do remember my parents working at DCS Sanitation, the company in charge of cleaning IBP, now Tyson Foods, in Lexington. They worked the “graveyard” shift, waking up at 10 p.m. to go to work and came home at 7 a.m. every single day.
They would barely have any time to see their children in the morning since they would help us get dressed, serve us breakfast, and take us to school. My parents would then go to sleep while my siblings and I went to school but would still wake up later in the afternoon to make us dinner and pick us up from school. They would then stay awake to help us with our homework and spend time with us before they slept a little again to get ready for work.
We didn’t have much growing up, but I treasured the moments that I spent with my parents. I still can’t understand how they did it—going to work and raising their children. There were many days that I would see them with body aches that were caused by their hard work at the plant, but regardless of that, they never complained. They still got up every single day in the night, worked until morning, and still took care of us when we needed them to.
My parents worked at DCS Sanitation for ten years before they decided that they wanted to find a job that had better hours so they can spend more time with their children. When my siblings and I got older, they applied and received a job to work at Tyson Foods. They have been working there for almost ten years.
Both of my parents have given their whole body and soul to work at the meat packing plant to be able to give their children better opportunities. I am thankful for Tyson for allowing them to do so. My siblings and I were extremely fortunate to receive both scholarships that they offer and are grateful that this allowed us to attend and graduate from college. I know that many people in my community are in similar situations as I am in. We acknowledge that Tyson is the lifeblood of our community and that it has given many opportunities to many.
Although this is true, I also acknowledge that their response to the COVID-19 situation has fallen short, which has therefore led to many infections in our community.
The first COVID-19 case in Nebraska was announced by Governor Pete Ricketts on March 6, 2020. Tyson should have begun to prepare for the incoming hit that they and the rest of our community were inevitably going to receive.
As the positive numbers kept climbing in Nebraska, they still didn’t do much. They implemented temperature checking at the door, but this was not enough. As we know, some people who are already infected sometimes don’t show any symptoms for a few days, weeks, or not at all.
The week after Easter, April 13, is when they finally began to give out masks. This was also the week that the positive numbers in Dawson County began to rapidly increase, further proving that Tyson’s response was too late. That same week, my mom began to feel ill. The doctor let her know that she was having COVID-19 symptoms. When the National Guard was conducting testing in Lexington, I quickly took her and waited for over four hours to get her tested. One week later, we received her results: positive. My heart dropped and I was in shock. Before then, I truly believed that Tyson was doing everything possible to protect their workers. Now, I know that it was all a facade.
My parents had been practicing social distancing since March, barely even leaving the house to go grocery shopping. My siblings worked at an office that was closed to the public and I had been working from home since March. The only place that she could’ve been infected was at her workplace—Tyson Foods. Their response was too little, too late. They seemed to care more about their profits than the people who were risking their lives every single day when they walked through the plant doors.
Honestly, I was angry and frustrated. My parents had dedicated many years of their lives to the plant and the plant treated them like they were disposable and didn’t care what happened to them. I saw my mom bedridden for two weeks, and I was terrified that I was going to lose her. I realized how fortunate I was when she began to feel better since she didn’t need to go to the hospital or be put on a ventilator. Others are not so fortunate.
One thing I want to make clear: during the time that she was ill, Tyson Foods did not check up on her or pay my parents any sick leave. My parents received their short-term disability check from their insurance a month after they applied for it. Instead of paying their workers when they are sick, Tyson is encouraging their workers to continue to work when they get sick by offering them bonuses that they receive only if they work every single day and by printing hundreds of yard signs that the employees can take home to promote their own company.
I am aware of the great things that Tyson has done for our community in the past, but by disregarding the protection of our workers, they are proving that their corporation does not really care about their employees as long as they receive their money at the end of the day. If they really cared, they would have provided appropriate personal protective equipment when they knew the virus was in Nebraska, deeply sanitized the workplace, and provided paid sick leave and immediate data transparency.
Those of us who are fighting for worker protections are not fighting for Tyson to leave our community and close. We are fighting for Tyson to protect their workers so they can continue to stay and operate in our community. If the workers are classified as essential, then they should also be respected and treated as such.
The daughter of Tyson Foods plant workers