At long last, we can start to see a future without the threat of COVID-19 hanging over our heads. Thanks to vaccine developments, we can look to getting back to normal, both in the industry and in our regular lives.
As the vaccine rollout progresses, it looks as if the meat and industry professionals will be, if not at the front of the line, at least close to the front. This is a great development for the industry. Throughout 2020, meat processors did phenomenal work in keeping people fed. Despite the notable negative headlines that left a black eye on the industry, I do believe that most of the meat companies in the country did the right things. The actions of small slaughterhouses and processors to pick up the load when big plants closed because of mass outbreaks should not be overlooked.
So, our way out of this mess is a simple one, right? Give vaccines to every employee who wants one, right? There will be issues about what happens when employees refuse vaccinations, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing. Right?
Enter Pete Ricketts, governor of Nebraska. Earlier this week, Gov. Ricketts held a press conference detailing plans to get the vaccine to the state’s meatpacking plants. According to the Washington Post, when asked if the vaccine would be offered to undocumented immigrants, Rickets answered with, “You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants. So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”
It’s a pithy, snarky response, but it did force his aides to issue clarifications. The Post reported that Taylor Gage, Ricketts’ communications director, posted on Twitter that, “Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants.”
Unless Gov. Ricketts has access to medical information that I don’t, the COVID-19 virus does not care about your legal status when it infects you. It doesn’t care about your skin color, your primary language or your salary. It’s an equal-opportunity virus. So if Nebraska is working to keep its meatpacking industry safe, why overlook an entire subset of employees based on whether or not they have a green card or are citizens?
From a legal standpoint, there should be no undocumented employees working in a meat plant. But realistically, there are. Maybe the employer was aware and just looked the other way, or maybe the E-Verify system isn’t as foolproof as it thinks it is. One estimate from the Associated Press put the number of undocumented meat and poultry industry employees at 14% of the nationwide workforce.
Can you imagine attempting to vaccinate the meat and poultry industry in the state of Nebraska and just ignoring 14 percent of the workers? Developing herd immunity in a population requires 90 percent to get vaccinated. Ignoring employees solely based on their legal status doesn’t eliminate the threat of COVID-19 mass outbreaks; it’s just a bigoted and cruel tactic that further punishes people who are already at a socio-economic and legal disadvantage.
I hope that Gov. Ricketts puts Nebraska’s economy and the public safety ahead of throwing a racist bone to his supporters. For the good of the meat industry, not to mention the good of the entire country, vaccinations for all is the way forward.