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The best way to keep meatpacking and food processing plants open is to protect workers

In his 30-year career, Mark Lauritsen has never seen meatpacking and food processing workers face the risk they face today. Because they are deemed essential, these workers have been working throughout the coronavirus pandemic so millions of Americans can continue to have access to the food they need.

“Our country cannot, in the same breath, call these workers essential employees and then continue to sacrifice their health and safety as well as the health and safety of their families,” says Lauritsen, who is the vice president for meatpacking with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union.

In a recent press briefing, UFCW International President Marc Perrone echoed Lauritsen’s concerns noting that many workers have not been given the essential protection they so desperately need.

“Even worse, we lack a uniform set of national safety standards that would ensure all workers, whether they’re union or nonunion, have the PPE they need as well as other key safety actions that should be taken and must be taken in order to protect them,” he says, adding that the UFCW represents 1.3 million workers across our food supply, including 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers.

As of April 28, there were 20 worker deaths in meatpacking and food processing plants. In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. Those directly impacted include individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized, or are symptomatic.

New estimates also show 22 meatpacking plants have been closed, which includes union and non-union plants, at some point in March and April. Over 35,000 workers have been impacted as a result of these closures, which translates into a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

“Cattle producers rely on the workers and the plants themselves to ensure a steady supply of beef to consumers and to be certain cattle continue to be able to move through the system,” says NCBA CEO Colin Woodall.

Executive Order Implemented

In an effort to keep meat flowing through the supply chain, President Trump recently mandated meatpacking and food processing plants remain open. However, it didn’t include any language that ensures the safety of the workers.

“Let me be clear, the best way to keep these plants open is to protect America’s meatpacking workers,” Perrone says.

Cargill implements Protocols

Cargill, which operates eight primary beef processing plants in North America, says it will only operate its facilities if it can do so safely. The company has approximately 25,000 employees working at these facilities.

“As we work to keep people fed at this critical time, our focus is on protecting the health of our employees and preventing the spread of the virus,” says a Cargill spokesperson, adding that its beef processing facility in High River, Alberta, has been idled. In addition, the company’s Fort Morgan, Colorado, plant is operating with one shift; while its plants in Dodge City, Kansas, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, are running at slower speeds.

“These decisions have been made in concert with local public health officials, driven by local conditions, and made in the best interest of our employees and the customers we serve,” the company spokesperson says.

Employees Anxious, Nervous

A Cargill employee for 25 years, Rhonda Trevino has witnessed the commitment to employee health and safety firsthand.

“Everyone in the plant is anxious and nervous about going to work,” says Trevino, who works at the Cargill beef processing plant in Fort Worth, Texas. “Because of how many people we are around, we worry about the virus every day.”

The plant has around 2,000 employees and is running two shifts. It processes about 5,200 cattle every day, which is about 325 cattle per hour. 

“It is very fast-paced work with a lot of employees working side by side,” she says. “The plant and our union have been very proactive in pushing social distancing.”

For example, plexiglass dividers have been placed on tables in the cafeteria and seating is limited to two employees per table. In addition, neoprene curtains have been placed between employees as they work.

“The truth is, what is happening at our plant must also happen at other plants across the country,” Trevino says.

To date, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 at the plant. However, Cargill’s Friona, Texas, plant has reported seven positive cases and another 13 are awaiting test results.

Because of the rising cases, Itzel Goytia says she’s concerned precautions weren’t put into place quickly enough at the Cargill plant where she works in Dodge City, Kansas.

Within 10 days, she says the number of confirmed cases in Ford County, where the plant is located, jumped from 19 to 288. As of April 23, UFCW says 16 of those cases were at the plant. The county’s population is 1,336, according to the 2010 census.

“Social distancing is hard and almost impossible in some areas of the plant,” Goytia says. 

To ensure that appropriate prevention, testing, cleaning, and quarantine protocols are followed in all of its facilities, Cargill says it has been working closely with local health officials. It also says it began implementing extra precautions for its workers weeks ago. Those measures included:

  • Enforcing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for employees who have tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19, as well as any employees who may have come in contact with a team member who tested positive.
  • Temperature testing. “They are doing temperature checks as we go into the plant,” Trevino says. “At one point, the company had thermometers that were not working correctly. I had a meeting with the plant manager, and he immediately replaced the thermometers.”
  • Providing face masks. “We have hundreds of workers in and out of the plant every day. That’s why every one of us needs to have the right protective equipment, like masks and gloves,” Goytia says. “Thankfully, Cargill began giving us masks the week of April 13.”
  • Enhancing the cleaning and sanitizing of facilities.
  • Prohibiting visitors from entering facilities.
  • Offering staggered breaks and shift flexibility.
  • Increasing distancing between employees.
  • Communicating the importance of social distancing at home and at work as well as the importance of quarantining and return-to-work timing.

Cargill is also offering enhanced benefits to employees including covering co-pays for COVID-19 testing and providing up to 14 days of additional paid leave for COVID-19 related needs.

“While this union and some of the employers have made changes, quite honestly, we’re not seeing the scope of changes needed to protect these workers and our food supply as we move forward, because I do believe we are going to see this virus again in the fall,” Perrone says. “This issue is not just about whether or not we have enough beef, chicken, or pork to feed our families. It is about the workers. This is life and death.”

The following is what Perrone believes needs to be done:

  1. We must prioritize these essential workers for testing because there is far too little testing taking place in the plants.
  2. We need essential access to personal protective equipment.
  3. We need to immediately halt the line speed waivers. In the first two weeks of April, the USDA approved 11 regulatory line waivers for poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed to 140 birds a minute. “That many birds traveling that fast in that line absolutely restricts your ability to have social distancing,” Perrone says.
  4. We need to mandate social distancing.
  5. We need to isolate workers who show symptoms and who test positive for COVID-19.

“The coronavirus poses an unprecedented threat and challenge to the workers across this industry,” Lauritsen says. “Every day that goes by and more is not done to protect these workers, the more that these workers and the nation’s food supply is in jeopardy.”

To date, UFCW has been able to secure important improvements including enhanced sanitation; paid sick leave for COVID-19 positive workers; temperature checks at the plants; employer-provided personal protective equipment; social distancing on the floor, in common areas at plants, and inside production areas; barriers between workers; and emergency pay increases with some agreements as high as $5 per hour.

Dispelling “Bad Meat” Rumors

Our understanding about the coronavirus and how it spreads is evolving as we learn more about it. While the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, some are concerned it can pass from person to meat or from person to packaging.

“I am not aware of any reports of COVID-19 being passed through meat or packaging,” says Terry Houser, associate professor, Extension meat specialist, Iowa State University, adding that plants are mandated to thoroughly clean and sanitize every day.

“It’s almost like there is a perception that these plants are not cleaned unless you have people who test positive for COVID-19. That’s not how it works,” he says. “The real question that we should be concerned about is how do we get these workers to and from work safely so they can continue to do their job?”

The CDC guidelines outlining how to keep workers safe can be found here

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