How a Somali community took on a Minnesota meatpacking plant to contain a Covid-19 outbreak

Workers at meat processing plants across the US have been particularly vulnerable to Covid-19
Workers at meat processing plants across the US have been particularly vulnerable to Covid-19
Image: REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
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Six years ago, then 27-year-old Nimo Ibrahim started her new job deboning chickens at Pilgrim’s Pride in Cold Spring, Minnesota. For the young Somali refugee and single mother of three, the job was a lifeline as she had no other skills.

But she never considered the work “essential,” or one that could put her life at grave risk.

On April 23, Nimo showed up for her usual night shift, but things at the plant were far from usual; she had begun hearing about sick co-workers. News reports warned about coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants throughout the US. She arrived feverish that night, with a headache, and, despite a temperature screening, was still allowed to join the line and work.

Shortly after midnight, she reported she was too sick to continue working and was escorted out of the plant. Test results two weeks later confirmed her fears. She had tested positive for Covid-19.

Nimo was one of the nearly 200 confirmed coronavirus cases at Pilgrim’s Pride. While she stayed home to recover, things took a dramatic turn at the plant. Workers staged a walkout and later joined residents in Stearns County, where the plant is located, in a protest outside the plant. The plant employs 1,100 people and “about 80% of the workers are Somali immigrants,” says Mohammed Goni, a staff organizer for the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, a St. Cloud-based nonprofit that assists low-wage workers and helped organize the rally with Pilgrim’s Pride employees.

Somali protesters outside Pilgrim’s Pride meatpacking factory in Minnesota
Somali protesters outside Pilgrim’s Pride meatpacking factory in Minnesota
Image: Greater Minnesota Worker Center/Facebook

Recognizing the plant’s role as a mass employer in the community, Goni and other Somali-Americans in the area quickly rallied behind the workers. There were concerns about community spread.

“Pilgrim’s Pride workers are in the community and some of them are living with three to four other folks and they are working in other plants,” said Goni.

Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group, demanded an investigation of the plant by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We got state leaders to hear employee testimonies on what was happening at the plant,” said Jaylani Hussein, a Somali-American and executive director of CAIR Minnesota.

Employees admonished the plant for letting sick workers continue to work; they called for the plant to shut down temporarily for cleaning and demanded coronavirus testing for all workers.

Last month state officials said the plant was a significant driver of the then 1,400 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Stearns County. State health workers confirmed 83 Covid-19 cases at the plant on May 11, that number more than doubled four days later to 194. Like most meatpacking plants across the country, Pilgrim’s Pride has refused to disclose the number of infected workers at the St. Cloud location, and concerns remain about the plant being a hot spot for the virus in Stearns county. By mid-June the number of cases in the county has ballooned to 2,109 — the third highest out of the 87 counties in the state.

Meatpacking plants are “inherently susceptible” to the coronavirus owing to the working conditions. Employees work shoulder to shoulder in frigid temperatures, making it difficult to socially distance; the grueling nature of the work also makes it hard for workers to keep their masks on properly. To curb outbreaks, plants have installed plexiglasses and other kinds of dividers to separate workers on the line and in cafeterias; some have had to slow production lines and reduce the number of workers on shifts.

A 2019 Quartz analysis found that Africa has the fastest-growing number of immigrants in the US. And Somalia is among the top five sending countries for the sub-Saharan Africans.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the US, many of whom like Nimo are beneficiaries of the US resettlement program. St. Cloud, in particular, is one of the three main metropolitan areas where a majority of Somali immigrants in the state reside. Resettlement of refugees in the US from Somalia began in 1990 as conflict in the Horn of Africa country escalated. Minnesota started receiving Somali primary refugees in 1993. In both the state and the country, the number of arrivals skyrocketed in the 2000s.

Bolstered by this surge, Somali-Americans carved a niche in local politics in the state, clinching seats in metropolitan school boards, state legislature, and, most notably, in the US Congress with Ilhan Omar’s 2018 win.

Even if they were initially resettled to other states, many of the refugees from Somalia eventually relocated to Minnesota.

A Somali protester outside the Pilgrim Pride plant in Minnesota
A Somali protester outside the Pilgrim Pride plant in Minnesota
Image: Greater Minnesota Worker Center

Nimo, for instance, was initially resettled to Chicago in 2013. She moved from Durban in South Africa, where she had lost her husband, a storekeeper, to one of the country’s xenophobic pogroms. UNHCR picked her case and the US offered to resettle her. Barely a month into her arrival, Nimo learned about Minnesota’s large Somali community and soon moved there.

Upon entering the US, many refugees struggle to find work, particularly those with little education and English language skills. In the early 1990s word spread about job opportunities in meatpacking plants in rural Minnesota and Somali immigrants began to apply. Some started out in Marshall, less than 150 miles southwest of St. Cloud, and others around the state followed suit.

“Although many different paths brought people to the state,” wrote Ahmed Ismail Yusuf in his book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” “in truth the unskilled workers who found jobs in Marshall and then loudly blew a whistle were the greatest inspiration to the Somalis who chose Minnesota for their new home.”

“I had no support,” Nimo says in Somali through a translator, explaining her decision to work in meatpacking. “The only option was to find a job quickly.”

Alone, Nimo navigated life as a single parent with occasional assistance from her 13-year-old daughter and an elderly neighbor who she paid to babysit her children during her night shifts. When word of infected cases in the plant began to spread in the Somali immigrant community in mid-April, her babysitter quit.

Nimo hasn’t been back to work since she fell ill and is currently receiving assistance from Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program until she is cleared to resume work. (She tested positive again for the virus on May 16.) But she’s eager to go back to work. As a deboner she makes $17 an hour.

“Keeping the job is a priority,” Nimo says. “This is the only thing that I know and have been doing for a long time.”

The plant was shut down temporarily for deep cleaning from May 23 to May 25. Pilgrim’s Pride said it has implemented several “preventive measures,” including promoting physical distancing in the plant, allowing no-cost visits from virtual doctors, increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts and requiring sick employees to stay home from work.

In the past, workers at Pilgrim’s Pride had complained about working conditions at the plant, such as “excessive speed of production lines, regulated bathroom breaks, unfair terminations and lack of religious accommodations.” So, when employees started falling ill, Goni, Hussein and other members of the Somali immigrant community rushed to the workers’ side. A big show of community support was needed given employees’ embattled relationship with the company. This widespread response helped compel the company to tackle the outbreak at the plant.

“We are generally satisfied that they did respond to the demands of employees,” said Hussein. “However, it did not deserve the amount of pressure we had to put in since other companies were being proactive in advance.”

“They have to be accountable to the amount of people that got sick,” he said.

Goni, on the other hand, remains skeptical. “The question is: How well will it be implemented?” he said in response to the new measures. “What we’re doing with organizers is waiting to see the impact of the change.”

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