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Meat industry takes hit as workers refuse to return

A Hy-Vee spokesperson said the decision to put a limit on the sale of meat is due to worker shortages at plants as well as an increase in meat sales.
A Hy-Vee spokesperson said the decision to put a limit on the sale of meat is due to worker shortages at plants as well as an increase in meat sales. Nati Harnik/Associated Press/Associated Press

America’s meat-processing plants are starting to reopen, but not all workers are showing up. Some still fear they’ll get sick after coronavirus outbreaks shut more than a dozen facilities last month. Employees are taking leave, paid and unpaid — or just quitting.

At a JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colo., absenteeism is running as high as 30 percent. Before the pandemic, it was about 13 percent. The company is paying about 10 percent of the workforce — people deemed vulnerable — to stay home. Others aren’t coming in because they are sick.

But some workers are staying home because they are “scared,” according to Kim Cordova, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 7 union, which represents workers at the plant. She noted that on a recent visit that production speeds at the plant were “really slow” because of the labor crunch.

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Meat plants have been at the nexus of coronavirus hot spots across America’s rural heartland. The disease spread through plants in March and April as companies struggled to adapt their workplaces to new rules dictated by the pandemic. As absenteeism persists, the US is at risk of continued meat shortages and higher prices, even after President Trump signed an executive order to keep plants running.

JBS is following federal “guidance around safety and social distancing, and we’re doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for our team members who have been eager to get back to work,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

At the Colorado plant, JBS says it has given out masks and put up plexiglass barriers to separate people.

Workers still need higher quality protective equipment, and there are still areas where employees can’t social distance, Cordova said.

“If they don’t mitigate, we’re going to continue the cycle of workers dying and workers getting sick,” she said.

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Conditions at US meat plants contributed to increased risk of infections, and ultimately more than 4,900 workers fell ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency cited difficulty maintaining social distancing and adhering to the heightened cleaning and disinfection guidance among the factors that increased risks for workers. There were 20 deaths among employees as the virus spread to 115 meat plants across 19 states, data through late April showed.

Unions say many workers fear that new measures companies have put in place, including temperature scanners and face masks, aren’t enough to guarantee their safety as operations resume weeks or in some cases just days after a plant has idled.

“There’s a number of folks who have quit — and there may be others who decide not to go back,” said Kooper Caraway, president of Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, which represents 3,700 workers at Smithfield Foods Inc.’s South Dakota pork plant.