Sacrificing safety for profits

Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center
Investigative Reporting
Lake Sun Leader

This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Bernardo Serpa cut pork legs eight hours a day, six days a week.

He made the same cut roughly 12,000 times per shift, wielding a sharp knife as a production line worker at the second-largest pork processing plant in the country.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In one week, dozens of his colleagues at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, got sick. It prompted the company to test all of its 2,800 employees. In late April, large white tents appeared outside.

When it was Serpa’s turn, he got his nose swabbed. Then he went back inside where he stood elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with dozens of other potentially infected employees to await the results.

His test came back negative, but his relief was short-lived. One week later, the Cuban immigrant was among hundreds of his co-workers to contract the coronavirus in what would become one of the nation’s largest meatpacking plant outbreaks.

Serpa would spend nearly four months in the hospital, much of it in a coma.

On Oct. 16, he died.

USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting spent five months piecing together the pivotal moments in the Triumph Foods outbreak, interviewing more than a dozen current and former workers and examining thousands of pages of government records.

The reporting found Triumph failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of COVID-19. And local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers.

As outbreaks spread through meatpacking plants across the country, some experts warned that Triumph and others in the industry would choose production over worker safety. Since then, workers and their unions have accused companies of doing the bare minimum to protect staff and time and again finding ways to keep their lines running.

At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10 hours a day, crammed side by side. Even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus program that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill.

On April 19, the day before the plant’s first positive case, Triumph’s board chairman Glenn Stolt shared a coronavirus conspiracy theory video on his Facebook page that claims 5G cell towers were instead to blame for illnesses, that the virus is less deadly than the seasonal flu, and that the CDC’s recommendation on 6-foot social distancing was “misinformation.”

Weeks later, nearly 500 Triumph employees – roughly a fifth of its workforce  – tested positive. Four workers, including Serpa, have since died.

Executives at Triumph Foods had known for weeks that meatpacking plants were particularly susceptible to COVID-19. By the end of April, thousands of meat plant workers across the nation were sick. At least 30 had died.

Factories in many industries – including at least 33 meatpacking plants – had shut down temporarily, sending workers home to protect them from infection. Triumph never did.

Instead, the company worked behind the scenes to lobby state and federal officials to push back on safety recommendations and keep its plant open.

State health officials, meanwhile, never used their authority to shut down the plant. Missouri economic and agricultural officials advocated keeping Triumph open. With Triumph’s input, local members of Congress lobbied the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in mid-May for relief from COVID-19 guidelines such as those recommending workers stand at least 6 feet apart. Do the best you can, the CDC told them.   

After the extent of Triumph’s outbreak became clear in May, the company withheld information on the total number of cases and encouraged state agencies to do the same, according to company emails and interviews with workers. Weekly reports to the union stopped. State and local health departments said cases from the plant spread to Kansas City, Missouri, and to eight counties in the state and Kansas.

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services did all it could to help Triumph, its employees and the community, wrote Lisa Cox, an agency spokeswoman. That included testing and contact tracing designed to limit additional exposure. Based on the results, she said, state health director Randall Williams “determined closure was not necessary.”

A spokeswoman defended the state agriculture department’s involvement as helping Triumph ensure pork supply. “If we had any concern beyond protecting food workers,” wrote spokeswoman Sami Jo Freeman, “it was for our Missouri families heading to the grocery store.”

Triumph declined to make its top executives available for interviews and did not directly answer a lengthy list of questions. Instead, Triumph provided statements that pointed to efforts it took in response to the coronavirus, including providing personal protective equipment to employees, installing plastic barriers in tight working spaces and giving two weeks’ pay to those who had to isolate. Those efforts cost nearly $7 million, the company said.

“Because of our early, thorough, and proactive response to COVID-19,” Triumph CEO Mark Campbell said in the statement, “Triumph Foods became one of the industry leaders in the United States for its response to the pandemic and remains one today.”

The company stressed that its actions should be understood in the context of operating during an evolving pandemic and characterized its interaction with government as seeking clarification. The company “went above and beyond” government mandates, Triumph said. In fact, the government mandated little because Triumph and other meatpacking executives immediately pushed back against a host of recommendations that would have cost them time and money.

Triumph touted its preemptive effort to test its entire workforce. Without it, the company said, it would have kept sick workers in the plant and all but guaranteed further spread.

But Triumph did keep sick workers in the plant for days while they awaited test results. Testing was an unusual step for the industry at the time, but so too was keeping the plant open after recording hundreds of cases.

After getting their noses swabbed in the parking lot in late April, Serpa and his colleagues went back to work with people whom tests would later confirm had been infected and likely shedding the virus for days.

“They brought me back to work, for what?” Serpa said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed in July, three months before his death. “For me to die there?”

Lake Sun Leader