Meatpacking workers in Texas Panhandle have little power to avoid the coronavirus

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CACTUS — To understand powerlessness in a pandemic, trace a northbound path from Amarillo up Highway 87. Not too far shy of the border where Texas meets Oklahoma lies Moore County.

There are few easy ways to make a living in this country of feedlots and dryland cotton, but one of the hardest is at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant. Just about everything looks small on these vast flatlands until you get right up on it, but the 125-acre plant in the tiny town of Cactus is massive from any vantage point.

The steady billow of gray smoke from the plant's stacks tells you it is still running full tilt. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, it's considered essential to keep thousands of cattle running through the kill floor each day, headed for dinner tables across America.

Meat and poultry plants nationwide have emerged as incubators for coronavirus spread. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily as the number of cases and deaths tied to those facilities rose; others have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions in facilities where meat packers often must work shoulder to shoulder.

State health investigators are tracking 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, and Moore County now has the highest reported infection rate in Texas. Yet about 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa, still report there each day.

Meatpacking has always been brutal and dangerous work, but it pays relatively well. JBS jobs have drawn generations of immigrants to this rural community, so many that Hispanics make up more than half of Moore County’s nearly 22,000 residents, and one-quarter of the population is immigrants.

But the people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all.

Politically, there's hardly anyone like them to speak with their voice among the region's nearly all-white slate of elected officials. Socially, they are largely invisible, a tide of anonymous workers streaming to and from the plant each day. And economically, they are simply labor.