“These jobs for essential workers are lower paying than the average job across America, in some cases by significant margins. So home health aides, cashiers – absolutely essential, on the front lines, have to physically report to work,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute. “They are more predominantly African American or Hispanic than the overall working populations.”
The workforce at Smithfield is made up largely of immigrants and refugees from places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador. There are 80 different languages spoken in the plant. Estimates of the mean hourly wage range from $14-16 an hour. Those hours are long, the work is gruelling, and standing on a production line often means being less than a foot away from your co-workers on either side.
The BBC spoke to half a dozen current and former Smithfield employees who say that while they were afraid to continue going to work, deciding between employment and their health has been an impossible choice.
“I have a lot of bills. My baby’s coming soon – I have to work,” said one 25-year-old employee whose wife is eight months pregnant. “If I get a positive, I’m really worried I can’t save my wife.”