Latino workers at meat and chicken processing plants have been the hardest hit by coronavirus, accounting for 56 percent of cases reported in plants in 21 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
The latest CDC data, published Tuesday, reinforces alarms raised as meat and chicken facilities and their surrounding communities have become COVID-19 hot spots and deaths among workers have mounted this year.
In total, almost 9 in 10 coronavirus cases (87 percent) were among racial and ethnic minority workers, with 5,584 cases occurring in Latinos through May 31. Another 1,842, or 19 percent, of cases occurred in non-Hispanic Black workers; 1,332, or 13 percent, in non-Hispanic whites; and 1,161, or 12 percent, in Asians.
In the last several months, the deaths of Latino workers at meat processing plants have put a stark focus on the safety of workers and the vulnerability of the nation's food supply.
A coalition of food worker, civil and human rights advocates filed a civil rights complaint Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS USA, asking for a suspension of federal funds for the companies and referral of the complaint to the Justice Department.
The complaint stated that "for the purpose of maximizing profits and processing capacity, these companies treat plant floor workers as sacrificial," and said the companies have received over $150 million dollars this year in taxpayer money.
Tyson and JBS did not respond to NBC News requests for comment by the end of the business day Wednesday.
Overall, there have been at least 17,358 coronavirus cases and 91 COVID-19-related deaths at meat and poultry facilities in 23 states reporting outbreaks through May 30, the CDC said.
But the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry plant workers may not be fully known because so few states responded, fewer had demographic data and there was limited data from affected plants on the racial and ethnic breakdown of all their workers, the CDC said.
In the facilities that reported racial and ethnic data, 39 percent of the plants' workers are white, 30 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent Black and 6 percent Asian.
Some companies tried to close some of their plants in April as deaths and infections escalated, but President Donald Trump signed an executive order to compel them to stay open.
Shared working, commuting and living conditions
In many facilities, workers are within 6 feet of one another for long periods, with work shifts of 8 to 12 hours. Workers share work spaces, transportation to and from work, live in shared housing and have frequent community contact with fellow workers, CDC noted. Those factors may contribute to the virus spreading in the community, the report states.
Nebraska reported the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among workers with 3,438 and the highest number of deaths, 14. It also had the highest number of workers in affected facilities.
The CDC said meat and poultry plants worked with local health departments to try to reduce COVID-19 transmissions and curb exposures, including offering testing.
“Expanding interventions across these facilities nationwide might help protect workers in this industry,” the CDC said in its report.
That could include comprehensive testing and “targeted, workplace-specific prevention” strategies, which are critical to reducing COVID-19-associated health disparities among “vulnerable populations.”
Only 21 states of the 23 reporting outbreaks provided updated demographic data for the latest count. In these 21 states, 7,288 of the cases were men and 5,741, or 46 percent, were ages 40-59, and 88 percent of workers with COVID-19 were symptomatic and 12 percent asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.
In the 239 facilities reporting cases, 89 screened workers on entry, 86 required all workers to wear face coverings, 72 increased the availability of hand hygiene stations, 70 educated workers on community spread, and 69 put up physical barriers between workers, the CDC said. Forty-one of 111 facilities offered testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 to workers; 24 reported closing temporarily.