The virus hits close to home

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began its attack in Europe, Pope Francis has continually trumpeted a need to care for the most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor and the immigrant, among others.

“May we be profoundly shaken by what is happening all around us,” he said on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 19. “The time has come to eliminate inequalities, to heal the injustice that is undermining the health of the entire human family.”

As we have seen, those on the outskirts of society — as well as the medical personnel who are on the front lines treating the ill — have been hit hardest by COVID-19. This is the case in Wisconsin, especially in Brown County, where 853 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported on April 27. Nearly half of these are laborers who work in the meat packing industry.

Brown County is home to several meat packing plants, which employ Latino and Somali immigrants, among others. According to news reports, 255 workers at JBS USA, 130 at American Foods Group and 17 at Salm Partners in Denmark have tested positive for the virus. On April 26, JBS USA, the largest plant with more than 1,200 employees, announced it would temporarily close its operation.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Brown County has the highest infection rate in the state: 328.3 positive cases per 100,000 people as of April 27. Milwaukee County is second with an infection rate of 280.2.

JBS USA operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared foods facilities across the United States. The Green Bay beef facility is the fourth JBS plant to temporarily close to help slow community spread of the virus, according to JBS.

The high rate of infection at food processing plants led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to announce April 24 that it would visit the three Green Bay plants, along with TNT Crust, a pizza crust manufacturer in Green Bay, the Patrick Cudahy pork processing plant near Milwaukee, and the Birds Eye Foods plant in Darien, Wis.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP), an organization that advocates for worker rights, said the country’s meat packing industry has not followed federal health guidelines to protect its workers from the virus. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines are not mandatory, employers can choose to follow them or not, said Deborah Berkowitz, NELP worker health and safety program director, told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Norbertine Fr. Andy Cribben, pastor of St. Willebrord Parish in Green Bay, also worries that the meat packing plants have not done enough to protect workers. He said between 50% to 60% of JBS employees are Hispanic, many of whom attend his parish.

“It looks like a major failure that these companies chose not to slow down production at the cost of worker safety. Workers who are required to work in close proximity,” Fr. Cribben wrote on his Facebook April 22. “This is not a game for these families.”

He told The Compass April 27 that JBS will pay its employees for 32 hours a week while the shutdown continues. Fr. Cribben is still concerned about workers who were exposed to the virus, as well as other immigrants, such as restaurant workers and hotel cleaning staff, who have lost jobs and do not receive unemployment or stimulus checks. “The crisis deepens with each passing week,” he said.

The parish is sponsoring two projects to help community members, the St. Willebrord Food Pantry and a “Fund for the Poor,” which provides monetary assistance for rent, utilities and other needs. Readers interested in assisting the parish can make donations online at stwillys.org/en/make-a-donation.