The union that represents meat pack workers in Kansas has launched a nationwide push to convince more members to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The campaign combines virtual town halls with face-to-face contact aimed at Latino employees.

The first town hall features an hour-long conversation in Spanish between the union’s local district president, Martin Rosas, and two Hispanic doctors, Fabian Sandoval and José Romero, highlighting the risk of not staying vaccinated.

“The COVID vaccines offer us a glimmer of hope,” said Rosas. “So (the union) wants to make sure that all of our members know the facts.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) represents approximately 9,000 food workers in Kansas. This includes more than 7,000 meat packaging employees at the Cargill and National Beef plants in Dodge City and Liberal.

In March, the state sent out 12,000 doses of vaccine specifically intended for meat packers. Rosas said this helped boost vaccination efforts, but that he had seen the momentum diminish over the past two months.

Part of the challenge, he said, comes when workers try to find answers to their specific questions in Spanish.

“In the state of Kansas,” said Rosas, “access to face-to-face bilingual information is quite limited.”

The union has sent additional staff to meat packers to help members complete vaccination papers and to address persistent concerns about the development, safety or side effects of the vaccine.

“Personal commitment is extremely important,” said Rosas. “You’re hearing from someone you can trust.”

“Gossip is what kills people”

Nationwide, the COVID-19 virus infected Hispanics disproportionately. Still, the vaccination rate among Latinos in Kansas – 266 per 1,000 people – continues to lag behind that of non-Latinos – 332 per 1,000 people.

In addition to language and access barriers, a lack of clear information about the gunshots and the spread of vaccine myths on social media have contributed to a degree of reluctance in Hispanic communities.

“There is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine,” said Sandoval, who heads the Emerson Clinical Research Institute in Washington, DC. Gossip is what kills people. “

In addition, some frontline food workers fear that if they call in sick, they could lose their jobs. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 83% of Hispanic workers cannot work remotely – that’s 15% more than non-Hispanics.

“As Latinos, we’ve firmly established that we have to work even when we’re sick,” said Romero, chairman of the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccine advisory board. “Many Latinos just refer to COVID-19 as a common cold. I want to tell you that this is not true. “

UFCW’s Rosas said the unionized plants in Kansas relaxed their attendance policies to allow employees to miss their jobs due to health concerns during the pandemic. Workers are given 15 days of paid time off that they can use to stay home when they are unwell, to care for a sick loved one, or to recover from the side effects of vaccination. Even if they have used up their paid time off, they are allowed to miss work for COVID-related purposes without exercising discipline.

However, many workers still fear that a lack of work will endanger their job for some reason. Rosas said he got a call just this week from a member who felt sick after getting her COVID shot and she didn’t know what to do.

“I told her, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t lose your job,'” said Rosas. “You just have to call.”

Ripple effects

Meatpacking employees perform physically demanding work in narrow, cold rooms. This can make it difficult to contain the spread of the virus, even with updated security protocols. And the plants continued to stay open as outbreaks spread.

It is all the more critical to increase the number of vaccinations among employees.

“The vaccine,” said Rosas, “is the best and probably the only real source of protection we have now (in meat packers).”

Meat packing facilities were the largest source of COVID outbreaks in Kansas early on. U.S. State Department health statistics show the plants are still the third highest source of COVID cluster cases. Almost 4,000 people have been infected since March last year. So far, 122 hospital admissions and 24 deaths have been attributed to COVID outbreaks at meat packaging facilities, according to the state.

But Rosas sees reason for hope. During a visit to a Dodge City plant this week, he said the majority of the workers he spoke to have already been vaccinated. He wants to bring that number to at least 80%.

And if the vaccination campaign in the plants can be successful, the ripple effects could have a significant impact on the environment. About one in six people in Dodge City is a UFCW member.

“If each of our members has four family members in their household, just think about that number,” said Rosas. “Everything we do in these plants will affect 75% of the population in this city.”

David Condos reports on West Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

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