WATERLOO — Local officials are hopeful but wary as Tyson Fresh Meats moves to reopen its Waterloo pork processing plant Thursday.
“I am reserved in my optimism and hopeful in my anticipation of Tyson’s resolve to a rededication to worker safety,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who heads the county’s emergency operations center dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I pray that with this reopening, workers get back to work safely, our county starts turning the corner as we fight this virus, and we can finally start contemplating the terms of recovery for our citizens,” he added.
Tyson Foods announced it would begin limited operation of its Waterloo plant, which has been closed since April 22 due to a COVID-19 outbreak among its workers. At least 444 of the plant’s 2,800 employees have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The Tyson beef plant at Dakota City, Nebraska, also will resume limited production Thursday. That plant was idled at the end of last week after at least 669 of its 4,300 workers tested positive for the virus. At least three of those workers died.
Workers toured the Waterloo plant Wednesday to see the enhanced safety measures and social distancing procedures that have been implemented.
One worker, who declined to be identified, said he is ready to get back to work and feels safe.
“They designed the whole area. We got a spacing shield between each team member; it’s like a clear plastic between the team members. He have a social distance, like 6 feet from each team member,” he said.
He said security checks the temperature of each team member and asks about symptoms when they enter. Mask and face shields are available, he said
“It’s real, real safe right now,” said the man, who has been working at the plant for more than 20 years.
Another worker said he remains cautious.
“I have seen some changes that should help reduce the spread. I am no expert, but it will still be hard in the locker room as it is still the same, and can be very busy in there. I hope there isn’t a second wave, because although it’s better prepared now, it’s still not near perfect,” said the second worker, who also declined to be identified.
The company said in a news release that Thompson, Mayor Quentin Hart, UFCW Local 431 President Bob Waters, and other local business leaders toured the plant Friday to see the changes. A subsequent joint company and community leader review of the company’s protocols was done to safely resume operations, Tyson officials said.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their loved ones and our communities,” said Tom Hart, plant manager of Tyson’s Waterloo facility. “We appreciate the collaboration and support of Black Hawk County health officials, Mayor Hart and Sheriff Thompson as we tested team members and took proactive steps to complement our existing prevention efforts, working with epidemiologists and other experts.”
The plant is Arkansas-based Tyson’s largest pork processing operation, with the ability to process 19,500 hogs per day. That accounts for 3.9% of the U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.
All those who will return to work have been tested for COVID-19, the disease cased by the virus, the company said. Those who have tested positive will remain on sick leave until they can return to work.
Tyson said workers who haven’t been tested won’t be able to return to work, and all new hires must be tested before beginning their jobs.
Tyson said it partnered with Matrix Medical Network, a medical clinical services company, to establish an onsite clinic to provide employees with enhanced care. This includes diagnostic testing for COVID-19, daily clinical screenings, access to nurse practitioners and employee education and support for personal health goals or concerns.
According to the Tyson statement, Waters, the president of UFCW Local 431, said, “Tyson has gone above and beyond to keep their employees safe, and I support the reopening of the facility. This pork plant and all of the measures they’ve put in place are an example of how to effectively set up a safe work environment for the employees.”
Hart, who had lobbied hard for Tyson to close the Waterloo plant when the COVID-19 outbreak erupted there in April, said the plant is reopening with his blessing.
“I had an opportunity on May 1 to hear their presentation about the steps they were putting in place,” Hart said. “I appreciate the steps they’re taking, and I’m glad to see the focus on protecting the workers.
“They are a valuable part of our community,” he added. “The people that work there are neighbors, friends and family members.”
State Rep. Ras Smith said he was pleased to see Tyson had implemented worker safety protocols, but he remained concerned about some aspects at the plant.
Smith was one of several area lawmakers who filed a complaint with Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration that alleged the company did not take steps to protect its workforce.
“The goal was to show that we can do two things at once,” he said. “We can do right for our workers and also do right for our farmers.
“Now that they’ve made those adjustments and aligned with those standards, I’m sure the worker safety will be improved,” added Smith, noting that should not let Tyson off the hook for its initial failure.
Smith said he was still concerned test results of the Tyson workforce have not been fully compiled and reviewed, and he still had questions about whether proper oversight will be in place when the plant reopens.
“One thing I pushed for is independent oversight,” he said. “I’m also concerned about some of the things in the attendance policy and the bonuses tied to attendance. We want to make sure they are not incentivizing employees who are coming to work sick because they want the bonus.”
County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said two employees from her department will be on site Thursday to monitor the entry and exit procedures at the plant.
Egbuonye said Tyson’s local management has had an open-door policy with county health officials, who view the safety measures at the plant as a partnership and not an adversarial relationship.
“Our hope is the implementation will also be effective and efficient,” she said. “We’re hopeful.”
Jeff Reinitz contributed to this article.
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