Debate continues about worker safety in meat processing plants

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 917 views 

Protective barriers were recently installed in Tyson Foods chicken processing plants to comply with social distancing guidelines to help protect against the spread of COVID-19.

As of May 12, there had been at least 12,500 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 180 plants in 31 states, and at least 53 reported worker deaths at 29 plants in 20 states, according to InvestigateMidwest.org.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting said Monday (May 11) at least 4,585 Tyson Foods’ meatpacking employees in 15 states tested positive for COVID-19. There have been 18 deaths in the past two months, which Tyson Foods has not publicly acknowledged.

The Springdale-based meat giant has faced temporary plant closures across the Midwest as cases escalated. The meat processing industry is now working under a federal directive to remain open with guarantees of some liability protection from lawsuits if the plants operate under the strict guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is overseeing this protocol.

Worker and consumer groups continue to advocate for more employee safety precautions as the widespread cases at Tyson facilities stretch across 21 plants from the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in Logansport, Ind., Waterloo and Perry, Iowa. Tyson’s Waterloo pork processing plant had 44% of employees test positive for COVID-19 as of early May, and 40% in the Logansport facility testing positive, according to multiple media reports.

Dennis Medbourn has been a Tyson Foods employee for the past 12 years working in the company’s Logansport plant. He has worked on the line and now is the walking steward and union representative in that facility. Medbourn told Talk Business & Politics he tested positive in late April on the day Tyson requested all plant employees be tested following the April 23rd plant closure. Medbourn was told the results three days later shortly after his symptoms began. He was sick for about seven days but remained quarantined for the 14-day period.

“I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I had a cough, fever and lots of aches and pains,” he said. “I did receive pay during the time I was off, according to our union contract.”

Medbourn said he believes he contracted COVID-19 from the plant given his job is to walk the facility and talk to the employees. He confirmed the plant was hit hard with about 40% of the employees testing positive. When the plant reopened May 7, he said a large number of employees did not return to work.

He said the first few days back the line ran at slower speeds, but the following week Tyson increased the line speed to normal by taking employees from both shifts to run just one shift per day. Medbourn said the plant has been updated with the latest safety standards and in his opinion the company has done a “very good job” trying to ensure its workforce remains safe.

“Tyson put in some extra effort here to ensure worker safety,” he said. “When team members enter the facility though the guard shack, they have their temperature checked with the infrared scanners and they do wear protective gear throughout their shift and in the common areas. The union is pleased with the efforts Tyson has shown during this crisis to keep team members safe and still remain open to ensure there is food to eat.”

Medbourn also appreciated efforts to enforce social distancing in the facility’s large cafeteria. The company erected a large tent outdoors to allow some to take breaks outside. The addition of a Matrix mobile health clinic onsite was also seen as a step to ensure employee health needs are met.

Medbourn said people in the nearby community are still cautious about going out. He could not say when workers at home might return. He said some of them are quarantined and some are healthy but still uncomfortable returning.

Across the border in Black Hawk County Iowa, COVID-19 outbreaks in the Waterloo plant continue to raise concerns from state and county health officials who say Tyson employees accounted for 90% of the positive cases in the county. Tyson said it is working with state and county health officials and allowing workers who feel uncomfortable to remain at home. The Waterloo plant was temporarily closed for complete sanitization and to ensure all employees could be tested and has since reopened.

Legislators in Iowa filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in mid-April alleging Tyson failed to protect workers from risks of COVID-19. The complaint alleged Tyson Foods has not properly protected workers in Black Hawk County. They also sent a letter to Tyson in mid-April asking Tyson to close the plant as staying open was endangering the surrounding community. A week later, Tyson announced the temporary closure of the Waterloo plant. Tyson posted a video of the inside of the plant at Waterloo after the accommodations were made to adhere to CDC safety guidelines prior to reopening on May 7.

Tyson President Dean Banks said the company is doing everything it can to make sure employees are taken care of during this crisis.

“What we’ve seen is that our plants live within a community,” Banks said. “From everything we’ve seen, the spread of the disease in the community is affecting us in the plant. Tyson was extremely early in providing as many protective measures as we could possibly imagine.”

Joe Enriquez Henry, a spokesman for League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told Talk Business & Politics Tyson continues to provide mixed signals in the Waterloo area, near where he is based. Henry said Waterloo has been hit hard with roughly one-third of the plant’s workforce testing positive for COVID-19. Henry said employees are “crawling” back to work because they can’t afford to stay home and miss out on bonuses which are tied to attendance.

Tyson executives have said employees impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns will be paid, according to union contracts. Tyson also said it waived the five-day waiting period for disability benefits for anyone sickened by COVID-19. The company also sent food to the areas of Waterloo and Logansport to ensure families in the region had meat protein to eat while quarantined at home.

Henry said the outbreaks in meatpacking are a result of the company putting profits before employees’ health. He said Tyson operates four plants in Iowa which are run in part by large 35% to 45% immigrant populations, many with language barriers. Henry said there is a disconnect between plant management and workers about the benefits Tyson said it is paying, which cannot be verified.

While Tyson and other meatpacking facilities are now operating under federal orders to remain open, Henry said management should frequently meet with employees to review the risks and safety precautions. He said more is needed to keep workers safe, namely slowing line speeds given the workers must wear masks and stand in-between plexiglass barriers that restrict air flow.

Henry said LULAC and state officials will protest at the Waterloo plant at 2 p.m. on Friday (May 15) to raise awareness of the risks workers are taking to keep Tyson plants running.

Tyson Foods spokeswoman Liz Croston, said the health and safety of its employees is its top priority. Tyson said the company is testing all employees and will not hesitate to idle any plant for additional cleaning and sanitization. She said short-term disability covers 90% of normal wages until June 30 for those who are sick. She said all returning workers are tested again and must satisfy official health requirements for return to work.

“Education is an important part of our efforts and we’re doing our best to ensure our team members understand risk factors so that they can stay safe at work and at home. Our communications are translated into multiple languages to support the diversity of our workers. We also have translators who also help with communications and Benefit Counselors to assist team members in navigating our benefits program,” Croston said.

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