WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar blamed a rash of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants on workers’ personal living habits, suggesting they were contracting the disease in their communities and bringing the disease to the plant.
The call was about rural hospitals but veered into the Trump administration’s oversight of workplaces deemed essential. “Azar attempted to make the case that meat processing plants should be kept open and that workers are at greater risk of COVID-19 infection in their ‘home and social’ environments rather than on the job,” said Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster.
Kuster said the administration’s approach to handling COVID-19 outbreaks in essential workplaces “deeply troubling.”
Azar’s comments align with the stance of the meatpacking industry. As meat processing plants have become coronavirus hot spots, the industry has assigned blame to the living conditions of workers, not failures in workplace safety.
When the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota became one of the largest known coronavirus clusters in the country, with over 700 people infected, the company blamed “living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.”
The company said many of the infected workers lived in the same building and apartment. Conversations with workers revealed Smithfield did little to inform or protect employees in the period immediately after the first case of infection was discovered.
Meatpacking industry workers are disproportionately people of color, immigrants, and people in low-income families. More than 44% of the industry is Hispanic and 25% is black, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“President Trump and his Administration are giving more value to a piece of meat than the lives of American workers and their children,” Rep. Tony Cardenás, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' fundraising arm, told BuzzFeed News in a statement on Friday. “Once again President Trump is ignoring science and the truth. He wants to give immunity to large food corporations and require hard-working people, some U.S. citizens, and some undocumented, to risk their lives. This is wrong, this is criminal.”
The issue, given its intersection of rights for workers and for people of color in the middle of a public health crisis, will factor into this year’s presidential campaign. Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee to face Trump in the general election, focused on the meatpackers Monday during a forum with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
“It’s always been dangerous,” Biden said of the work. “It’s always been underpaid. And now add that to the extreme threat of COVID-19 made all the worse by fear that workers are living with every single day. They’re afraid to go to work, because what happens if they get ill, what happens if they get COVID-19? They’re afraid to stay home because of what it means for their livelihood. … They’re afraid to come home after work, because of what they might be bringing back and spread to people they love and adore. They’re afraid to seek proper medical care, because what if it meant that their immigration status is in jeopardy and be changed?”
On Friday, a Biden campaign spokesperson characterized Azar’s comments to lawmakers as an extension of an inadequate Trump administration response to the coronavirus crisis.
"Secretary Azar's comments are part and parcel of Trump and his administration's refusal to take responsibility for their abject failure on the coronavirus — a failure that has left over 75,000 Americans dead, with over a million more infected, and 33 million workers newly jobless,” the spokesperson, Mike Gwin, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Essential workers, like those in meat processing plants — along with health care workers and first responders — desperately need life-saving personal protective equipment, not more excuses from Trump about why he hasn't gotten them the supplies they need to battle this virus.”
Over 10,000 positive coronavirus tests have been linked to at least 170 meat processing plants across the country.
Azar’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This post has been updated with comment from Rep. Tony Cardenás, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' fundraising arm.
This post has been updated with comment from a Biden campaign spokesperson.