HHS chief suggests workers are to blame for COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants

HHS chief suggests workers are to blame for COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants
© Getty Images

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar reportedly suggested that the social habits and living conditions of workers at meatpacking plants were the reason for recent COVID-19 outbreaks at processing facilities.

Azar made the remarks on an April 28 call with lawmakers, when he referenced the "home and social" conditions of the workers, Politico reported Thursday, citing three people on the call.

"He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem," Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterHHS chief suggests workers are to blame for COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings endorses Biden ahead of Florida primary Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements MORE (D-N.H.), who was on the call, told the publication. "Their theory of the case is that they are not becoming infected in the meat processing plant, they're becoming infected because of the way they live in their home."

ADVERTISEMENT

When reached for comment, Michael Caputo, the HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, told The Hill that Azar "simply made the point that many public health officials have made: in addition to the meat packing plants themselves, many workers at certain remote and rural meatpacking facilities have living conditions that involve multifamily and congregate living, which have been conducive to rapid spread of the disease. This is nothing more than a statement of the obvious."

Still, Azar's remarks reflect a position that has shown signs of taking hold among some meat processing company executives and GOP leaders.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemSouth Dakota governor asks Trump to intervene in checkpoint dispute with Native American tribes Native American tribe leader says tribal sovereignty protects coronavirus checkpoints Are we being conditioned to limit our Bill of Rights? MORE (R) told Fox News last month that an outbreak at the Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in her state did not happen at the plant, but rather where workers live.

"We believe that 99 percent of what's going on today wasn't happening inside the facility. It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus. Because a lot of these folks that work at this plant live in the same community, same building, sometimes in the same apartment," said Noem.

“Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” a Smithfield spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News in an article published April 20.

Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, told The Hill on Thursday that the article was "in no way, shape or form representative of our position on this topic."

ADVERTISEMENT

Lombardo instead pointed to an April 24 announcement by Smithfield that said the company is "proud of the multi-culturalism on display every day throughout many of our facilities, including in Sioux Falls. Our employees are our strength. They come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages and dialects. Our position is this: We cannot fight this virus by finger-pointing."

Democrats have cited the outbreaks in their criticism of the Trump administration's coronavirus response.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenLifting our voices — and votes Longtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick Biden will help close out Texas Democrats' virtual convention: report MORE, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said on a video conference call Monday that he would tighten safety conditions at meatpacking plants, and that workers should get hazard pay during the pandemic.

Biden also implied that the source of contagion for workers is at the plants, not at home.

"They're afraid to go to work," said Biden. "[They're afraid of] what they might be bringing back and spreading to people they love and adore."

Biden added that the Trump administration has designated meatpacking and other food supply workers as essential, then treated them "as disposable."

"It's quite frankly inhumane and immoral," he said.

Outbreaks have hit plants in other states as well.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported on Tuesday that 730 workers at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Perry had contracted the virus, representing 58 percent of its staff, according to local news reports. The department also noted that more than 1,600 workers at four meatpacking plants across the state had suffered infections.

Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.) last week blamed meatpacking companies for the spread of the deadly virus among workers. He also lashed out at those pointing the finger at cultural circumstances.

"I find those remarks to be reprehensible, nothing short of racism," said García. "It seeks to blame the victims of the tough working conditions, dangerous working conditions, that people in the meatpacking industry endure."

"Because companies did not take measures to observe social distancing practices is why you've had a rapid spread of the virus," he added.

Updated at 3:33 p.m.