When they have not sold enough spot advertising, broadcasters air public service announcements that these days are all about how we are “in this together.”
But up and down the meat industry, the only togetherness that seems to exists is that everybody wants to slap down somebody else. It follows the temporary closures of as many as 15 beef and pork plants across the country after as many as 3,300 industry employees were infected with COVID-19, resulting in as many as 17 deaths. And the three big beef and pork production companies are under fire from various union and activist groups, mostly about face masks.
JBS USA wants to slap down Local 7 of the United Foods and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) over its heated claims. The Rural Community Workers Alliance wants to slap down Smithfield Fresh Meat by getting the federal court in St. Joseph, MO, to take over at Smithfield’s Milan, MO, plant.
And Tyson Chairman John Tyson slapped down consumer expectations about the industry’s ability to keep enough production going to satisfy market demands. “The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson said in company-paid advertising over the weekend.
JBS’s slap-down of Local 7 came Saturday in the form of a 5-page “cease and desist” letter over alleged violations by the union of its collective bargaining agreement with the company.
It sent the letter to Local 7 President Kim Cordova as JBS was re-opening the large Greeley, CO, beef plant. It has also re-opened its Souderton, PA, beef production facility.
JBS USA operates more than 60 meat, poultry, and prepared food facilities in the United States. Two are temporarily closed, the Worthington, MN, pork plant, and it’s Green Bay beef production facility.
The JBS beef plant in Greeley operates with a workforce of about 3,400. It is the largest employer in Weld County, with a population of 325,000.
The county has recorded 1,527 coronavirus cases with 80 deaths.
The deaths of five JBS employees are attributed to COVID-19. Weld County’s largest number of deaths, 27, is associated with local nursing homes.
As JBS re-opened, the union president was quoted in the Denver Post saying the company was “giving my workers a death sentence.” JBS said in the collective barging agreement, the union agreed the company has the sole responsibility for safety and agrees to use the grievance process to express concerns it may have.
Cordovas responded to the JBS letter with one of her own, saying the union was merely expressing itself as permitted by the First Amendment.
JBS says in re-opening, it is working with ” expert epidemiologists and medical professionals” and following the new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health departments, and other officials, to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19
To date, the company has adopted the following safety measures at its facilities to prevent coronavirus from entering its workplaces and support its team members:
- Temperature testing all team members before entering facilities, including the use of hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging testing technology;
- Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks, which are required to be worn at all times;
- Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including plexiglass dividers in key areas;
- Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day;
- Hiring dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor;
- Removing vulnerable populations from facilities, offering full pay and benefits;
- Requiring sick team members to stay home from work;
- Waiving short-term disability waiting periods;
- Relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick;
- Providing free 100 percent preventative care to all team members enrolled in the company’s health plan;
- Offering free LiveHealth Online services for team members enrolled in the company’s health plan that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost;
- Educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work; and
- Restricting access to facilities and not allowing visitors.
Smithfield Foods Inc. was the first to get specific guidance from a CDC team for the yet-to-re-open John Morrell pork plant in Sioux Falls, SD. Smithfield has also its Cudahy, WI, and Martin City, MO, facilities for two weeks.
The federal government has been balancing its desire to have “essential” meat and poultry facilities up and running to avoid food shortages and possible pandemic panic with the need to keep COVID-19 hotspots under control from “community spread.”
The nonprofit Rural Community Workers Alliance has also slapped Smithfield Foods with a federal lawsuit seeking to force the company to comply with CDC guidelines and public health officials. Smithfield will find out in the next couple of days if federal Judge Greg Kays will let them out of this litigation.
They wanted to wait until May 4 when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) completes its investigation of Smithfield’s Milan facility. But Judge Greg Kays instead ordered Smithfield attorneys to turn in their written agreement for dismissal by tomorrow and for both sides to be ready for a motion hearing on Thursday.
“The United States is in the middle of a public health crisis, over 50,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 with hundreds of thousands more suffering from the virus,” Judge Kays wrote. “Although allowed to continue operating as essential businesses, slaughterhouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Over the weekend, CDC and OSHA released new interim guidelines for U.S. meat production during the COVID-19 pandemic, including these points:
- Employers should encourage single-file movement throughout the facility with six feet of distance between workers whenever possible. In addition, workers should be designated to monitor and facilitate worker social distancing on processing floor lines.
- Companies should also stagger break times or provide temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of workers congregating during breaks, as well as arrival and departure times to prevent gatherings of workers in parking areas, locker rooms, and near time clocks.
- CDC and OSHA state in the document that visual cues should be put on the floor as a reminder to workers to keep social distancing.
- The guidelines also encourage workers to avoid carpooling to and from work.
If carpooling or using company shuttle vehicles is a necessity for workers, the following control practices should be used:
- Limit the number of people per vehicle as much as possible. This may mean using more vehicles.
- Encourage employees to maintain social distancing as much as possible.
- Encourage employees to use hand hygiene before entering the vehicle and when arriving at the destination.
- Encourage employees in a shared van or car space to wear cloth masks.
- Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces after each carpool or shuttle trip (e.g., door handles, handrails, seatbelt buckles).
- Encourage employees to follow coughing and sneezing etiquette when in the vehicle.
The CDC-OSHA guidance says factors that affect an employee’s risk of exposure to the virus, including people working closely together on the processing line and working closely together for a prolonged period. Different types of contact in a meat and poultry processing plant also could expose workers to the virus — like shared spaces in the break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility. Shared tools and workstations are also an issue of making the virus spread quickly.
Tyson Fresh Meats, the beef, and pork subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc. temporarily halted production at its Pasco, WA, beef facility last week. The company plans to test employees for COVID-19 while they “self-isolate at home” until results are known. Tyson shut-downs are also occurring in their Waterloo, IA, and Logansport, IN, pork plants.
Other Tyson meat and poultry operations are continuing to operate, although not always at capacity.
“We’ve taken both of our responsibilities to continue feeding the nation and keeping our team members safe and healthy seriously, “ said Steve Stouffer, Tyson Fresh Meats group vice president.
John Tyson saw fit to warn consumers that beef and pork products they favor might not be available next time they go shopping.
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