Elbow-to-Elbow Working Conditions in Meatpacking Plants Fuel Spread of Covid-19
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Elbow-to-Elbow Working Conditions in Meatpacking Plants Fuel Spread of Covid-19

A union rep says the plants are “not designed for social distancing.”

Large meatpacking plants are emerging as hotbeds for the spread of the potentially fatal Covid-19 virus.

In the latest case, Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp. confirmed Tuesday that employees at its Jennie-O turkey plant in Willmar have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. The company is not saying how many employees have the virus. Per a statement from the company, “We are not reporting individual cases as we have found that the situations in our communities are changing daily.” One media report indicated it was only two employees.

Windom-based Comfrey Farm Prime Pork on Tuesday also temporarily closed its pork plant after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. And on Monday, Colorado-based JBS USA announced the “indefinite closure” of its pork processing plant in Worthington. The facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, had 26 employees test positive for Covid-19 as of last Saturday.

Meatpacking is big business in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, there are about 20 large-scale meat-processing plants in the state.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663 union represents 1,850 workers at the JBS plant in Worthington. Matt Utecht, president of UFCW Local 663, says that the union learned of the first Covid-19 case at the Worthington plant on April 14. The next day they learned of a second case. By Thursday of last week, the count was up to 19 cases.

“The nature of a packing plant is [on] a lot of these [production] lines you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with your co-worker,” said Utecht. “They’re not designed for social distancing.”

Utecht says that he has a good relationship with JBS management and says that the company “was way ahead of the game” in getting gloves, PPE, surgical masks, face shields, and other equipment to employees.

“They were being very proactive and working with us really well,” said Utecht. He says that he was talking to the company about a strategy to keep the plant open by slowing down production which could allow workers to stand further apart. Gov. Tim Walz sent a task force to Worthington last week to assess the situation.

As of last Friday, Utecht had no idea that the plant would be idled on Monday.

“Whatever happened over the weekend, that happened quick,” said Utecht.

In many cases the workforces of meatpacking plants are dominated by immigrant labor.

“In Worthington probably 60 percent of the workforce is Hispanic. A lot of east African folks are in there,” said Utecht. “It’s quite a melting pot.”

That wide range of diversity is underscored by a statement from Hormel: “As team members are impacted by Covid-19, we are doing what’s right and that includes quarantining and ensuring all close contacts are identified and also quarantined, as well as transparent communication with our team members, including translating communications into approximately 10 languages. All impacted team members continue to receive 100 percent of pay and benefits while they are away from work.”

Wayzata-based Cargill Inc. temporarily shuttered its beef processing plant in High River, Alberta on Monday after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that beef prices could rise due to the closure of the plant which accounts for more than one-third of the beef packing capacity in all of Canada. The plant employs about 2,000 people. According to reports in Canadian media, the majority of workers at the Cargill plant are Filipino.

On Wednesday, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods temporarily closed a large pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after more than 180 infections had been linked to the plant. Last week, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc. shut the doors on a Sioux Falls, South Dakota pork processing plant. The South Dakota operation employs 3,700 people; more than 500 had tested positive for the virus.

Once Covid-19 gets into a meat-packing plant, Utecht said, “it spreads like wildfire.”

Utecht said that employees are often working elbow-to-elbow along fast-moving conveyor belts. In the days of Covid-19, Utecht says, companies will need to make some changes to what has been standard operating procedure.

“The current model of operating a packing house … It’s not going to work,” said Utecht. “Something has to change.”

On Thursday, national UFCW leaders said that 13 of its union members in meatpacking or processing have died due to the Covid-19 virus. They added that 13 packing plants across the U.S. have closed at some point amid the pandemic.