The National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation announced Tuesday that ProPublica’s series on how the meatpacking industry ignored pandemic warnings won its General Circulation Journalism Award. The series, by reporters Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung, found that meat companies’ mismanagement of the pandemic, combined with the federal government’s failure to ensure that plants took appropriate precautions, have contributed to the pandemic’s dramatic toll on meatpacking workers and their communities. ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser’s series on racial disparities in diabetic amputations and kidney care was also a finalist for the award.
ProPublica’s work on COVID-19 and meatpacking began with Grabell, who had written extensively about the industry. In March 2020, he wrote a story warning that the nation’s meatpacking plants were poised to explode with COVID-19.
Grabell quickly teamed with Yeung. They filed 180 public records requests to state and local health departments, mayors’ and governors’ offices and agriculture departments across the country, asking for their real-time emails and text messages as the virus hit local plants. The resulting trove captured the panic and despair of local officials as sick workers overwhelmed them, plant managers ignored them and state officials failed them.
Grabell and Yeung also meticulously tracked positive cases and deaths tied to meatpacking plants, using data from public health agencies and news reports. Unconvinced by the public narrative that meatpackers, like everyone else, were caught off-guard by COVID-19, the reporters dug into a decade’s worth of pandemic planning, and they found that the industry had ignored repeated warnings that a pandemic would cause exactly the sort of problems that unfolded. Worse, meatpacking companies chose not to maintain basic contingency plans the government requested.
Meanwhile, the government agencies that ostensibly exist to protect essential workers did not do so. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration ignored thousands of complaints from non-health care workers and advised its inspectors to give employers the benefit of the doubt, even if they weren’t following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Buried in a public records request, ProPublica discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had allowed the industry’s trade group to submit a draft of a presidential executive order that eventually helped meatpackers stay open despite rampant disease outbreaks in their plants.
Finally, reporters traveled to Waterloo, Iowa, where the local Tyson pork plant had the nation’s largest-known workplace outbreak. There they wove together two powerful, gutting narratives: The story of a town realizing that when the virus struck, Tyson was in charge, and the history of a place that captures how meatpacking was once a path to the middle class before the industry transformed, setting itself up to become a hotbed of COVID-19.
ProPublica stories were cited in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, the House Small Business Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus referenced ProPublica’s work in requesting a meeting with Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and a Government Accountability Office investigation of COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry. And 20 attorneys general noted ProPublica’s reporting in urging President Donald Trump to do more to enforce worker health and safety standards.
See a list of all this year’s NIHCM Awards in Journalism and Research winners here.