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She's Advocating For Her Meat Plant Worker Parents

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It might be hard to remember, but before the police killings and the protests against them became top of the news, the coronavirus pandemic was this nation's leading crisis, and that crisis continues. Even as some states reopen, new hotspots are emerging, and meat processing plants are one of them. Workers, many of them immigrants, continue to get sick. Dozens have died. In some cases, it is the children of these workers who are speaking out, and they've banded together to bring attention to conditions in the plants.

I spoke recently with Maira Mendez about this. Both of her parents work in Nebraska for Smithfield Foods. That's a top U.S. pork processor. Mendez is a member of a group called the Children of Smithfield that's been pressing the company and government officials to provide their parents with the equipment and support they need to work safely in the midst of a pandemic.

MAIRA MENDEZ: It all started on social media. We all started noticing what was going on in South Dakota in the Sioux Falls facility and noticed that it became a hotspot. And we were just worried that that was going to happen here in Crete. We started to hear very similar stories from those workers.

We were hearing from our parents, too. Like, the one that resonated with me the most was the hairnets as, like, the protection in place of a mask. When my dad was working, I asked him, like, are they giving you masks? What are they doing to protect you, like, in terms of PPE? And he said, they're giving us a full-face mask. And I said, then that's really good. And I said, what does it look like? And then when he described it as a full-face hairnet, it just took me by surprise.

And then I saw that same reference in this article about Sioux Falls, where a daughter of plant workers also mentions their parents describing that as the PPE that Smithfield was providing. That's when it just - it felt really wrong. And I was, like, it's not just in one plant. This is happening across the nation, and it's not just our parents maybe misinterpreting information. And so that's when we started kind of asking more questions.

MARTIN: I am going to ask you more bluntly, though. Is part of the reason you all are speaking out is that your parents are afraid to?

MENDEZ: Yeah, definitely. I think our parents could be their own voice, but I don't think they're ready for it. And so part of our mission is to help empower workers to feel like they can advocate for themselves. But until they don't feel ready, we're going to stand by them and advocate for the protection they deserve.

MARTIN: Well, you've been saying - in fact, I just want to be clear that your group says that you're not advocating for the plants to be closed down. What do you feel still needs to happen?

MENDEZ: I think the biggest thing is transparency, contact tracing when an employee's coworker that works side by side to them that tests positive and let that employee know. Because right now, employees are looking out for each other. My dad found out that someone he worked next to tested positive because he called him and told him, I tested positive. You should probably go get the test done - not because Smithfield said you've been in contact, or you've been exposed. Go get tested.

So I think that transparency piece as well from the governor that needs to start releasing those numbers again so that families can make the right decisions for their own families financially and just health-wise. PPE and even paid sick leave - my mom has cancer, and she was told that she needed to return on June 1. Otherwise, she needed to get another note. But she wasn't going to get paid anymore.

MARTIN: President Trump signed this executive order compelling meat processors to remain open during the pandemic to avoid meat shortages, saying that they are essential - that they are essential like medical facilities and supermarkets and so forth, and I'm - and I guess in suggesting that they have some special obligation to work through this pandemic. What do you think about that?

MENDEZ: I totally agree. I understand my parents fall under that essential worker category. But just like all frontline workers, I expect our government officials to be able to provide the protection that they need so they can keep the food industry running. My parents - I think they are just happy to have a job, which is unfortunate because they don't see the power in their voice right now on what they could demand for and ask for in their workplace to feel safer.

It's what immigrants came to this country for - to work. So unfortunately, for those same reasons, I think that we - they're just grateful to have that job opportunity and still have a job as opposed to other people that are without a job right now.

MARTIN: But you are their voice right now, so what - is there anything else you would like people to know that perhaps your parents and other parents don't feel comfortable saying for themselves? What else would you like the public to know?

MENDEZ: I think that the biggest thing is that they could have slowed the spread by taking action earlier on. They acted too late. And so now they tried to turn it around and say it was the way our employees live. It's a way these families and their culture - they're always, you know, living together in little apartments with big families. And I just want the public to really inform themselves about the situation and what really happened.

MARTIN: That's Maira Mendez. She is a school administrator in Lincoln, Neb. Her parents work at a Smithfield meat processing plant, also in Nebraska. She's part of a group called Children of Smithfield. They've been asking for more protections for their parents who work at these plants. Maira Mendez, thanks so much for talking to us.

MENDEZ: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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