Sherley Cruz

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University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American public has relied on “essential” low-wage workers to provide critical services and keep the public safe. Who has been protecting the workers? COVID-19 has exposed cracks that lead to serious gaps in workplace protections for low-wage workers. Decades of exploitative employer practices and neglect from the federal government have left frontline low-wage workers essentially unprotected. Many of these workers are people of color and recent immigrants who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus due to structural racism and socio-economic barriers. This is particularly true in the meatpacking industry, where a legacy of poor working conditions, exploitation, and lack of federal oversight has resulted in industry wide COVID outbreaks, thousands of infections, and over 200 deaths.

By applying a critical race theory lens and centering the story of the first worker to die after contracting COVID-19 at one of the world’s largest meatpacking plants, this Article unpacks the practices, policies, and frameworks that allow U.S. meatpacking plants to place profits over the lives of Black and Brown workers while the federal government turns a blind eye. How did these workers become disposal commodities? The lessons from the meat processing industry’s response to COVID-19 wield a narrative and counter-narrative that identify root causes and effective solutions for improving working conditions for all low-wage workers long after the pandemic.

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