The pandemic has devastated immigrant, black, indigenous and tan communities across the country. At the head of this painful health and economic crisis are thousands of key workers. Many are undocumented people who felt the cruel distress of this system long before COVID-19.
Meat and poultry manufacturers are hardest hit. At least 45,000 COVID-19 cases in the US have been linked to these plants, along with over 200 deaths. From November on between 6-8% of coronavirus cases in the country were associated with meat packers, reflecting the vulnerability of workers, the deadly neglect of meat packers like Smithfield and Tyson, and the inevitable handover to other community members. Nebraska alone reported over 6,700 COVID-19 cases traced to meat packers and 26 deaths. Data from the Institute for Migration Policy show that people without papers know their way around well 11% of the workforce in meat packaging companies in Nebraska.
Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out across the country, immigration justice and labor rights lawyers are advocating the importance of prioritizing access for key undocumented workers. While Ricketts’ office cleared Castañeda said proof of US citizenship is not required to get the vaccine. The damage has already been done.
Castañeda fears Ricketts’ comments will continue to spark a plague of misinformation that has sparked deeply ingrained fear in the undocumented community as they seek to gain access to health care across the state and across the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, undocumented community members have even been afraid of being tested for COVID-19 because they believed they would have to provide documents that prove their “legal” status.
“I spoke to someone … who is undocumented and who he works for [a] Plant … she said, “I want the vaccine to come out because I want people to get better. I know that I might not get it until the last time because I don’t exist in this country, ”said Castañeda. “The last four years have been particularly difficult for people. They think they can be arrested or deported for anything. It is harmful to have someone in a position of power who is playing with people’s livelihoods. “She said she was concerned about the possibility of workers and community members becoming infected again. “A vaccine is all the more urgent at this point.”
Testimonials from meat packers reflect a sense of desolation when describing the dangerous and exploitative conditions they had to work in during the pandemic. During a virtual press conference earlier this month held by Nebraska Senator Tony Vargas, Nebraska Appleseed Advocacy Group, and other organizers, a lawyer shared the words of some Nebraska meat packers. who have constantly voiced fear of retaliation when they speak publicly.
“There is no distancing. We don’t have a chance to wash our hands. That’s why I got infected. I was sick. Not only me. He died of coronavirus as an employee friend, ”reads the testimony Darcy Tromanhauser of Nebraska Appleseed read during the January 11 press conference. “In the beginning the company tried to do something, but now it’s different. They don’t really care. People are crammed into groups all the time coming to work … in the areas where we work. Lots of people are sick. I know the coronavirus is no joke. And our bosses try to intimidate all the time [us]. Now I guess what if I die I have children. I want the company to do something. “
Another statement from a meat packer was: “Many people died, including seven of my own employees. Disability benefits were delayed for months and as a result I had no income until I returned to work. The company nurses urged us to get back to work as soon as possible before we had fully recovered. The line speeds were increased significantly. In the meantime we continue to work understaffed. I feel sick and I feel needed. I’ve been with the company for years and feel betrayed. “
The constant fear of contracting the coronavirus meets the pain of losing community members. Castañeda said immigrant communities in Nebraska, similar to other parts of the country, have built comfort and solidarity with one another for decades. When someone comes by, many feel the grief. “I went to school with some of their children. We’re in the same age group. It’s a small church, ”she said.
Vargas, a democrat, introduced an invoice This will require better protection of meat packers in Nebraska, including a commitment by employers to provide workers with paid sick leave and clean personal protective equipment and a commitment by meat and poultry processing companies to be transparent about the number of reported COVID-19 cases his. “It has been almost a year since the pandemic began. Despite many attempts, nothing was done [to protect meatpacking workers]”Said Vargas in the January 11 virtual press conference.” The fear is that without direct, targeted, and deliberate action by elected leaders, the outcome will be worse than we ever imagined. “The American Civil Liberties Union did also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nebraska meat packers against the company Noah’s Arkwho operates a beef processing plant in Hastings for stubbornly refusing to “take obvious health precautions – physical distancing, adequate sick leave, tests and clean masks – to protect its workers and the surrounding community.”
Castañeda pondered the power of mutual aid and grassroots organization while continuing to educate undocumented workers of their rights. They and other organizers expect to continue to be vigilant protectors of community members as they hope to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and other resources. “Many of our parents have already signed COVID. It’s still personal, but it goes beyond our families and ourselves, “she said.” We have a responsibility to act. “
María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer working on labor rights at Prism. The native Guatemala is currently a news producer on Democracy Now! in New York City with an emphasis on Central America and asylum seekers, including stories.
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