Where’s the Beef? Republicans Don’t Understand Critical Infrastructure and Supply Chains

Over five weeks of a mostly-national shutdown, we never figured out how to protect essential workers.

By April 9, at least 9,000 health care workers — people trained in the proper use of personal protective equipment — had the virus and at least 27 health care workers had died. More than half had no known exposure to COVID outside of their work.

During the period of the shutdown, outbreaks occurred throughout the meatpacking industry, leading to shutdowns in a number of factories.

As a result, we’ve got meat shortages even as farmers have nowhere to sell their livestock. There were reports that a fifth of Wendy’s restaurants have run out of beef.

Stephens analyst James Rutherford said that a study of online menus for every Wendy’s location nationwide revealed that 1,043 restaurants — or 18% of its national footprint — have listed beef items as out of stock. More than 100 locations are still selling Wendy’s chili, which contains beef.

The shortages vary by state. Hundreds of Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and New York restaurants are out of beef, while other states’ menus do not indicate any supply chain issues.

A Tectonix GEO analysis shows one reason why: people from one of the heavily affected areas traveled throughout the country. That suggests one possible way COVID has spread to a bunch of relatively remote factories was truckers serving the industry. I’ve heard inspectors also likely spread the virus between factories.

There were COVID clusters in a number of other professions that remained open during the shut-down: cops, prison guards, public transport workers, grocery store workers.

We never figured out how to protect these critical workers when it was relatively easy, when they and other essential workers made up most of the people on public transportation, when they were the only people relying on child care. That’s partly because we never managed to get the PPE and test and tracking systems in place to keep them safe.

And as a result, as the meat industry shows, our failure to protect critical workers has led to strains in a key part of our food supply chain, impacting consumers and suppliers up and down that supply chain.

Coronavirus has even threatened parts of our economy more directly responsible for keeping people alive. Before we shut down, for example, our Air Traffic Control was buckling, as the virus spread among workers in the close spaces of control towers.

If we were a sane nation, focused on the public good rather than bottom line dollars, we would have spent the five weeks of national shut-down figuring out how to protect critical workers and implementing those systems wherever workplaces had not shut down. We would have used that time to test the system and build up stocks of PPE and test kits needed to replicate the system in other, less essential work places. We would have perfected systems for keeping workers safe in the time of COVID, so we could learn how to do it while it was relatively easy, giving us something to replicate when the economy reopened.

We’re not a sane nation. We’re largely not focused on the public good.

And as a result, during the entire five weeks of the shutdown, we watched in fascination at what happens when you continue to work without implementing adequate measures to limit the spread of COVID without taking the obvious lessons from it. Again, we watched that happen at a time when it would have been easier to protect critical workers, because they were interacting with a limited number of other people. As the economy reopens, it will get harder to protect such workers, because there will be more people using public transportation and in grocery stores and relying on child care, increasing the likelihood that a single case can spread to more people, each potentially leading to the shut-down of an entire workplace three weeks later.

By failing to solve the problem of how you protect workers, those rushing to reopen the economy have set this country up for key failures in our rickety supply chain. Some of those failures will be nuisances, with factories idled because they’re missing a key part or shortages of non-essential items in stores. Some of the failures could lead to further health consequences. Some failures may happen in industries where workers are a lot harder to replace quickly. Those failures will make it harder for businesses that are open, as any outbreak will add to already inflated costs of operating, to say nothing of the blow to confidence such failures will bring.

It turns out, a lot of Republicans don’t understand how our economy works (though the same misunderstandings lay behind their opposition to bailing out the auto industry in 2008). They don’t understand that if critical parts of our fragile system break down, other parts begin to break down, potentially setting off a chain reaction.

And as a result, they’re rushing back to reopen the economy without first having done the basic things needed to operate businesses safely.

Yes, we need to take steps reopen the economy for the sake of the economy and our collective sanity. Which is why it was so important for the Federal government to put the pieces in place that would facilitate reopening the economy during the shut down. Only, the Trump Administration did not do that. It squandered the sacrifice made by the 33 million Americans who lost a job in that period. Now, not having put those pieces in place, the Trump Administration is pushing to reopen the world’s largest economy relying on little more than homemade masks to keep it running.

49 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Doesn’t help when a Republican administration sees only a few headline stats: about eighty plus percent of meat and poultry processing workers are people of color, just over half are immigrants or recent immigrants. Live and Let Die is justifiably their theme song.

    • emptywheel says:

      Right: One reason Republicans don’t understand this is they don’t SEE these workers, and sure as hell don’t see the critical role these workers play in our gigantic house of cards economic system.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Echoing that, “Can you hear me now?” cellular phone commercial, it’s possible that Trump can now see his personal valet, what’s his name, who has just tested positive for Covid-19.

        • P J Evans says:

          I doubt that Trmp can see the possibility that he himself is an asymptomatic spreader.

      • BobCon says:

        Another thing the GOP doesn’t get due to most having no practical experience doing anything — jobs in meat packing and many other parts of agriculture are not plug and play.

        Many workers are highly skilled and in limited numbers, but the GOP thinks they can jam just anyone in as replacement workers deboning chickens or picking strawberries. It doesn’t work that way, and they will only end up with lots of ruined food along with the human cost of infected people.

        • P J Evans says:

          They do seem to assume that entry-level and low-wage jobs don’t require any skills or training. (I wish they’d try one. Even the data-entry job I had required two weeks of training – it was somewhat specialized – and we got updates on the instructions as needed.
          (and after several years with that data, I didn’t need help to understand it 20 years later, when I ran into it again.)

          • P J Evans says:

            I’ve pruned grape vines. Took two passes on a couple of the rows – one to shorten them to where I could see where to do the final cut. (rows of 8 vines, two a black grape, one a Muscat, and one a red grape). It was three days work, by myself. They did well the next year.

        • Smeelbo says:

          There seems to be no floor. I would not be surprised if prisoners that survive COVID-19 and therefore presumably immune are put to work on essential services such as meatpacking.

          Are they actually trying to kill us? It seems more difficult to avoid that conclusion.

          Arbeit Macht Frei.

          • Mooser says:

            “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
            Yes, there was a sign with that adage displayed at an anti-‘lockdown’ (an ass-root demonstration, no doubt.) protest.

            [FYI – please let us know if you’ve changed information in your login whether name/email/URL. Your comments will go into a holding bin needing manual clearance as long as there is a discrepancy. /~Rayne]

    • John Langston says:

      I know the republicans have no clue. A larger concern is business. How can they be short sided to protect workers that have to close the entire plant? I think the industry model must be worker exploitation.

      No one had a clue that this was a communicable disease? They just didn’t care.

      • Rayne says:

        I think the industry model must be worker exploitation.

        Employees are merely fungibles. One falls, insert another. It’s definitely exploitation.

        And Republicans have a clue, especially those who went to B-school in the U.S. That’s where business students are taught humans are fungible, just inputs of labor.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Yes, Rayne. While Mitch McConnell and the interests he represents would prefer a slicker, less floridly depraved frontman than Trump, they are not doing anything to change the overall drift. Our country is apparently helmed by Jared Kushner, the ultimate expression of nihilist B-school philosophy. As long as profits get steered to the right pockets, the GOP will continue to fiddle long after the Rome they have sacked burns to the ground.

      • John Langston says:

        If I were a business man, an investor, I’d want to know, why were you so incompetent that your plant was closed?

        Since I’m a human being, I am asking WTF?

        You lost as hardhearted business man, failed as a human being. The only question, does anyone in charge have a soul?

  2. Lex says:

    Yes. It’s not that we completely fucked up the initial response anymore. It’s that we haven’t even learned from our mistakes and made simple, obvious, and relatively easy improvements.

  3. Anne says:

    The problem is that workers in the meat processing plants work shoulder to shoulder, we’re told.
    Question: if those workers were, say, sewing clothes or assembling electronics, would the plants have the same problem? Or is there something about meat that makes the virus happy?

    • P J Evans says:

      Yes – except those are mostly in places like China. Or shut down because they’re non-essential.

    • emptywheel says:

      Adding to what PJ said, the meatpacking plants also must be kept cold, and as they exist there are lots of roles that require very close contact. From what I know of the auto industry, factory lines are a bit more spread out, but in some cases would be harder to put up barriers between line workers.

      • P J Evans says:

        My first few jobs were electronics assembly and testing. We weren’t as close together as meat packing, because of the equipment and the need for elbow room (we were sitting on chairs, not standing).
        A lot of that work is now automated, so I don’t know how packed those lines would be.

        • emptywheel says:

          To the extent there are still humans on the line, though, I think barriers wouldn’t work bc of the way the line moves.

          • BobCon says:

            Also, once you start talking about getting goods out of a plant and into the supply chain, there are chokepoints which require close contact between people in order to maintain the pre-virus throughput.

            You can often eventually rebuild things like loading docks and storage units, but that takes time. But they are often not designed for wide spacing of people, regulated entry, that kind of thing. So until you can rebuild, you may only get one or two people working to unload and process intake and outflow where you used to have six or eight.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              To your point and, I think, EW’s, Just-in-time supply chains – combined with systematic financialization, resource extraction, and panic levels of outsourcing – has created waterfalls of delicate sourcing arrangements. Omit one link in the chain and it collapses. The Covid-19 pandemic has cut links with abandon.

              Those arrangements were always about financial-eering as much as engineering and process quality. They depended on a deep well of financially healthy and well-resourced suppliers with lots of know-how. In short, resilience.

              Financialization, resource extraction, and panic levels of outsourcing have gutted that resilience. The most expensive and longest serving staff – those with experience and know-how – have been shown the door. They were the first people guys like Musk let go, for example, when Tesla couldn’t fix its manufacturing problems. That those were the people who could fix his problems mattered less to him than cutting short-term costs.

              Outsourcing has led to know-how, which took careers and generations to build, being plowed under. It’s gone overseas or been discarded along with the lives of the let go. That’s true at the top as well as the bottom. What’s left is a delicate Rube Goldberg machine that has the soundness of a Jenga tower with half the sticks needed to keep it from falling.

              • earlofhuntingdon says:

                I should have emphasized that PE firms own a surprising percentage of American companies, even ones that are nominally publicly held.

                The PE model is to drown a company in debt in order to extract upfront profits. That debt, along with rapacious management fees and charges, depletes the resources need to operate. But once owners extract their profits, they no longer care that no company could manage its way out from under it. The cuts that even good managers make to survive as long as possible are self-defeating and destroy resilience. We are seeing the tip of that very big iceberg now.

    • greengiant says:

      Seems to me workers were at least doubly or triply exposed. On the line, in restrooms, and at communal meals. During strenuous labor more chances for virus to be exhaled or inhaled. At back to school in Norway students are eating at their desks with classroom capacity cut in half.
      Re-up on transmissions in a call center and at a restaurant with possibility 6 feet spacing is not enough.
      Case study in why restaurants will be operating at way below capacity if at all, one diner infects 9 others at one meal.

      Case study in call center transmission. over 90 cases and only 4 were asymptomatic during study, and 4 went from asymptomatic to symptoms.
      Regards to prisons in addition to communal meals some prisons like Ohio’s Marion also have dorm rooms, ( 50 to 75 beds in a room in some jails for example)

  4. P J Evans says:

    It suggests to me that having only a few national distributors for things like meat (or flour, or paper products), and no local or regional ones, is a bad idea. Bigger isn’t better for everything, or for all sizes of “bigger”.

    • laura says:

      You can thank the late Earl Butz for that. Get Big or Get Out was his directive. My dad, grandpa and lots of their friends were Union Butchers and Meat Cutters – and had the last word on whether a carcass would come off the truck. Even with its USDA stamps, if it failed the final inspection, it would never make it into the store let alone the meat counter. In the 70’s the concentration was on and soon large subprime cuts in cryovac bags boxed for stacking show up. In the viscous fluid you would have no idea about fitness for intended purpose. Just 10’s of thousands of parts from animals source from all over the world. The work will always be hard and dangerous – and in cold temps, but it can and should be decentralized and returned to the communities.
      Also, my dad apprenticed at Packers and Canners in Northern California. It was a racially mixed workplace. White, Hispanic, African American. All working alging side each other. Closed Shop. Monday through Saturday, closed by 6:00pm wages sufficient to support a family. That’s what was sacrificed to return to the working conditions best described in The Jungle.

  5. Pete T says:

    I think it was ole Warren Buffett who said in effect – though he was talking about financials – “when the tide goes out you find out who is wearing a swimsuit” (I modified it to be gender neutral).

    So…COVID-19 has exposed a lot of things about the world economy and especially the USAs. Both simple things as EW has mentioned wrt to protecting key people – and no I don’t mean the Administration or Congress. No, key common working stiffs that drive a truck, do inspections, nurses, MDSs, techs, elderly care workers that tend to us when we are sick.

    Then there is the complex supply chains that don’t function if commercial customers shut down and food rots in the field and livestock is euthanized while the poor and COVD-affected retail customer risk going hungry – and do.

    As I discussed with Ed Walker a bit offline, the current profit-is-all-that-matters “free market” economy cannot handle this kind of thing. It’s not profitable to provide PPE or test working stiff critical (blue collar) people. Yeah – that’s what federal government (and often state) should be for, but we have the government we have not the government we want.

    It’s not as profitable to create resilient supply chains that can mediate demand between the commercial and retail end points. It’s not profitable to prepare up for a rainy day, weeks, months, or years.

    Our economy cannot be resilient as it is now. The best we can do is bail out Wall Street and non productive hedge funds as a form of market resilience for the rich.

    I do not know how probable this is, but is is possible that COVID-19 will force us to more localized commerce and thus a bias toward resilience.

    Marcy and Rayne have mentioned how they shop locally for produce, in season fruits, and meat. We here in Florida could too and there have been successful local efforts to connect the local farmer to food banks so some of the food does not rot. And a story last week about a local South Florida meat supplier for the commercial market – whose suppliers are local to Florida – has opened its doors to retail customers at fair prices.

    Like much “radical” change, a change to more resilience – perhaps not as radical as Kunstler, Martenson, and Astyk would propose – will be driven upwards from the local level.

    From the top – fuggittaboutit.


    • rip says:

      Really agree with everything you are saying. But I worry about the poor capitalists who think that they can do a better job than anyone else and so want to be in competitive markets. Not regulated markets, just ones where everyone can build a more profitable widget.

      Really starting to appreciate Ed Walker’s series on capitalism, especially as it related to this particular pandemic (https://www.emptywheel.net/2020/04/12/capitalism-fails-the-covid-19-crisis/).

  6. pdaly says:

    WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti interviewed on the May 6, 2020 broadcast of OnPoint a British journalist Brian Melican.

    Melican reviews how 3 cities from 3 different centuries dealt with pandemics. The case of Marseilles was eye-opening. 
The port city of Marseilles had a 200-year track record of success at quarantining ships carrying the plague until one time in 1720 when it was not successful. This lead to a Europe-wide outbreak. The description of Marseilles excellent disease surveillance and personal protective measures is fascinating including a bowl of vinegar to dunk the ship’s log into before a city official reads it with long pincer like tweezers. 

    The protective measures in place in 1720 were apparently ignored when mercantile interests (the silk on the quarantined ship was needed for an upcoming fair and the time was growing short) outweighed the interest for population safety. 


  7. Bobster33 says:

    We have already had other infrastructure upsets, i.e. the FAA and all air traffic. The FAA wanted to restart full operations at their Airport Traffic Control Towers and TRACONS in May. Outside of the northeast and a few population centers, there are few redundancies in Airport Traffic Controllers. Higher ups delayed the restart till June.

    A few months back a worker tested positive and the FAA shut down the tower. The flights were redirected to a TRACON which accepted 6 flights an hour (which effectively shut down a major airport). Not having dependable air transport will be a real drag as the economy restarts.

  8. Wm. Boyce says:

    Farmer’s markets, if you have any near you are the way to go, at least in part. The one I go to every week is no longer fun, but the non-profit running it has figured out ways to line people up six feet apart, w/chalk lines on the concrete. Local meat producers are there, as well as the best produce one can buy. A shorter supply chain is vital to our survival.

  9. John Langston says:

    I remember during the Vietnam era, that the war hawks said “life is cheap in Asia”.

    Looks at the numbers, is life any cheaper in the USA than any place on earth?

  10. Eureka says:

    Philly meat worker’s family sues over COVID-19 death. Suit says JBS boosted production in early pandemic with ‘Saturday kill.’

    Lawyers for a veteran meat-packing worker who died of COVID-19 last month have sued his former employer, the meat giant JBS, accusing it of wrongful death and negligence over the Haitian immigrant’s fatal encounter with the coronavirus.

    Enock Benjamin, 70, a union steward from Northeast Philadelphia, worked at JBS’s Souderton slaughterhouse, and died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus, according to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.

    The suit, filed Thursday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, says that JBS failed to protect workers with masks and other safety measures at the 1,400-employee meat-processing complex, and instead tacked onto the production schedule a “Saturday kill” program in March to satisfy demand in the “public panic purchases of ground meat.”

    “By choosing profits over safety, JBS demonstrated a reckless disregard to the rights and safety of others,” the suit claims.

    The suit filed Thursday says that JBS, one of the world’s largest beef-processing companies, has experienced virus outbreaks at least at six other meat plants, in addition to Souderton. These are in Greeley, Colo.; Plainwell, Mich.; Green Bay, Wis.; Cactus, Texas; Worthington, Minn., and Grand Island, Neb.

    The story of his sickness and dying, with words from family and friends, is linked in the second paragraph.

    • rwdjung says:

      “Wisconsin chief justice sparks backlash by saying covid-19 outbreak is among meatpacking workers, not ‘the regular folks’“
      Washington Post 7 May 2020

  11. taluslope says:

    Given the times Marcy, perhaps this is your most critical posting ever. Thanks, I hadn’t thought of the effects of a necessary trucker supply chain.

    But the consideration of which makes me even more pissed that few are talking about the end game. All discussion is about tactics and too little about strategy. I’m especially pissed at my science colleagues who deliver models ending in August or early fall. Invariably the online models I’ve played with tend to show an uptick in infections at the end of the modeling period.

    WTF? What comes after the modeling period? What comes after the shutdown? That’s what I want to know. Please someone convince me otherwise but the end game is herd immunity, perhaps helped along by a vaccine. And this is with multiple waves of infections over several years.

    Much like everyone gets the flu, most will get Covid. Yes it is terrible what is happening in prisons and in meat packing plants but in the end does it really matter much whether you catch it now or later?

    It seems to me that our strategy should be to keep the infection rate low enough so as not to kill off our precious health workers, yet high so as not to kill off our economy. But given flash points with exponential growth it will be messy.

    • Mooser says:

      “our strategy should be to keep the infection rate low enough so as not to kill off our precious health workers, yet high so as not to kill off our economy.”

      And before you know it, the infection rate becomes a leading economc indicator! The higher the infection rate, the better the economy? Cities and regions will boast about their infection rate; a high infection rate shows devotion to business!

    • greengiant says:

      Most will get Covid is not the game plan of China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Norway or Iceland. It’s not the game plan of my relative who is a retired nurse. It is not the game plan of millions of Americans who crashed the economy stopped gatherings before the governors issued any guidance or orders. You can watch the frontline episode on Seattle and listen to the head of Microsoft say it was an easy decision to work from home. It’s not the game plan of states hiring hundreds of contact tracers.

      Everybody is going to get is GOP talk for letting employers off the hook and letting the GOP off the hook of lack of guidance, quarantines, PPE, testing, getting small business money to small businesses.

      Think about it. Who is going to call out the national guard to get people to stop staying home?


  12. e.a.f. says:

    When I was a kid, they had an expression, “they couldn’t organize a screw in a whore house”. Well at least ttrump might be able to do that, but the rest, not so much. I’ve never seen such a bunch of un organized bums in my life. they’re too stupid to even figure out what they don’t know. or as my Mother used to say, they’re too stupid to even dance for the devil” If I weren’t an atheist I’d be saying, God Save America because those REpublicans never will.

  13. David Gray says:

    Another shoe drops:

    “Bowen’s medical supply company, Prestige Ameritech, could ramp up production to make an additional 1.7 million N95 masks a week. He viewed the shrinking domestic production of medical masks as a national security issue, though, and he wanted to give the federal government first dibs,” reported Aaron Davis. “‘We still have four like-new N95 manufacturing lines,’ Bowen wrote that day in an email to top administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services. ‘Reactivating these machines would be very difficult and very expensive but could be achieved in a dire situation.’”

    “But communications over several days with senior agency officials — including Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and emergency response — left Bowen with the clear impression that there was little immediate interest in his offer,” continued the report. Laura Wolf, director of the agency’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection, wrote back, “I don’t believe we as an government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet.”

    From the Washington Post.

Comments are closed.