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Meatpacking Union Fights Myths, Language Barriers In Its Push To Vaccinate More Kansas Workers

Trucks parked outside the National Beef meatpacking plant in Dodge City.
Chris Neal
/
Kansas News Service
The National Beef meatpacking plant in Dodge City.

COVID-19 hit Kansas meatpacking plants particularly hard during the pandemic. Now some workers are proving hesitant about getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The union that represents Kansas meatpacking workers has launched a nationwide push to convince more of its members to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The campaign teams virtual town halls with in-person outreach targeting Latino workers.

The first town hall features a one-hour conversation in Spanish between the union’s local district president, Martin Rosas, and two Hispanic medical doctors, Fabian Sandoval and José Romero, emphasizing the risks of remaining unvaccinated.

“The COVID vaccines offer us a glimmer of hope,” Rosas said. “This is why (the union) wants to make sure all our members know the facts.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, or UFCW, represents roughly 9,000 food workers in the state. That includes more than 7,000 meatpacking employees at Cargill and National Beef plants in Dodge City and Liberal.

In March, the state sent out 12,000 vaccine doses specifically earmarked for meatpacking workers. Rosas said that helped jumpstart the vaccination effort but that he’s seen the momentum taper off over the past two months.

Part of the challenge, he said, comes in finding information in Spanish with answers to specific questions.

“In the state of Kansas,” Rosas said, “access to bilingual information face-to-face is pretty limited.”

The union has sent extra personnel to meatpacking plants to help members fill out vaccine paperwork and address lingering concerns people have about the vaccine’s development, safety or side effects.

“Person-to-person engagement is extremely important,” Rosas said. “They hear from someone they can trust.”

‘Gossip is what kills people’

Statewide, the COVID-19 virus has disproportionately infected Hispanic people. And yet, the vaccination rate among Latinos in Kansas — 266 per 1,000 people — continues to lag behind that of non-Latinos — 332 per 1,000 people.

In addition to language and access barriers, a lack of clear information about the shots and the spread of vaccine myths on social media have contributed to hesitancy in Hispanic communities.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine,” said Sandoval, who leads the Emerson Clinical Research Institute in Washington, D.C. “Don’t listen to gossip. Gossip is what kills people.”

On top of that, some frontline food workers fear that they could lose their jobs if they call in sick. A study from the Economic Policy Institute reported that 83% of Hispanic workers can’t work remotely — that’s 15% more than non-Hispanics.

“As Latinos, we have it ingrained that we have to work even if we are sick,” said Romero, who chairs the Centers for Disease Control vaccine advisory panel. “Many Latinos refer to COVID-19 as just a cold. I want to tell you, that is not true.”

Rosas of UFCW said the unionized plants in Kansas have relaxed their attendance policies to allow employees to miss work for health reasons during the pandemic. Workers get 15 days of paid time-off, which they can use to stay home if they’re not feeling well, to take care of a loved one who is sick or to recover from vaccination side effects. Even if they have used up their paid time-off, they are allowed to miss work for COVID-related purposes without facing discipline.

UFCW Local 2 President Martin Rosas leads the union's virtual town hall with doctors José Romero and Fabian Sandoval.
UFCW Facebook Page
UFCW Local 2 President Martin Rosas, upper right, leads the union's virtual town hall with doctors José Romero, upper left, and Fabian Sandoval.

But many workers still worry that missing work for any reason puts their jobs in jeopardy. Rosas said he got a phone call just this week from a member who was feeling ill after getting her COVID shot, and she didn’t know what to do.

“I told her, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t lose your job,’” Rosas said. “You just need to call in.”

Ripple effects

Meatpacking employees perform physically demanding work in close, cold quarters. That can make it difficult to curb the spread of the virus, even with updated safety protocols. And the plants have continued to stay open as outbreaks spread.

That makes the push to increase vaccination numbers among employees all the more critical.

“The vaccine,” Rosas said, “is the best and probably the only real source of protection that we have now (in meatpacking plants).”

Early on, meatpacking plants were the largest source of COVID outbreaks in Kansas. State department of health statistics show the plants continue to be the third-highest source of COVID cluster cases, with nearly 4,000 people infected since last March. The state says 122 hospitalizations and 24 deaths have stemmed from COVID outbreaks at meatpacking facilities to date.

But Rosas sees reason to hope. During a visit to a Dodge City plant this week, he said the majority of workers he spoke with had already gotten vaccinated. He’d like to get that number up to 80%.

And if the vaccination campaign can succeed at the plants, the ripple effects could have a significant impact on the surrounding areas. Roughly one out of every six people in Dodge City are UFCW members.

“If each of our members has four family members of their household, just think about that number,” Rosas said. “Anything that we do in those plants will impact 75% of the population in that town.”

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org

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