COLUMBUS JUNCTION — On Monday about 120 meatpacking workers met with the mayor and city clerk of Columbus Junction to demand the city and county pay essential frontline workers impacted by the pandemic hazard pay using federal relief funds.
During the meeting, which included about 10% of the workforce from several meatpacking locations, including Tyson, several workers told their stories of how the COVID-19 health crisis had taken a toll on their lives. Speaking in English and Spanish with a translator, seven workers told their stories of working, getting sick, and watching family members die from the disease, alleging no support at work or in society. All the attendees are members of St. Joseph’s Church in Columbus Junction.
“We are mainly trying to get the mayor’s support and the city’s support to help us get the people in Columbus and Louisa County — get their help as well,” said the Rev. Guillermo Trevino Jr. He said Columbus Junction is receiving $275,000 in funding while Louisa County is receiving about $2 million.
Trevino said the group had asked Mayor Mark Huston and clerk Julie Heindel to use the second half of the funding Columbus Junction is getting from the federal government as seed money to an Essential and Excluded Workers Fund for direct payments to workers. Trevino said there are many reasons workers could have been skipped for the stimulus program, including that some workers are undocumented immigrants.
“We worked through the pandemic to support you, now we are here to ask that you support us,” Alfredo Ayala, one of the speakers at the meeting and a 32-year veteran of Tyson, told the city officials.
Huston said he attended the meeting not knowing what topics would be discussed. He said the city already plans to use 80% of the first distribution, which is half the total amount, for the city’s $1.4 million sewer project. He said the money would keep the city from having to borrow the entire amount for the project.
“Our ammonium phosphorous levels were higher than they (the Iowa Department of Natural Resources) want them to be so we are adding an additional process to our lagoon system,” Huston said. He said the required project is already years overdue.
He also said he got little opportunity to speak during Monday’s meeting, except to say he is not the one in charge of how the money is used and it is up to the five-member city council.
Iowa City and Johnson County has contributed $2 million to such a fund. LULAC and Catholic Worker House of Iowa City, a nonprofit that houses undocumented immigrants, are two of the 16 groups that lobbied for the Excluded Workers Fund.
Trevino said the parishioners of St. Joseph's will continue to speak out on the issue. Huston said he would meet with the group again. Trevino said that the group intends to approach other mayors in Louisa County.