WATERLOO — It’s becoming a pattern at meatpacking plants around Iowa and across the country: Workers, deemed essential to the country’s food supply, continue to provide meat. But working in close quarters, the spread of coronavirus becomes harder to stop.
Meatpacking plants in Iowa, like the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction and a National Beef plant in Tama, have seen outbreaks.
Of 189 coronavirus Iowa cases announced Tuesday, 86 were from the Columbus Junction plant, which closed operations last week. The Iowa Premium plant operated by National Beef in Tama has closed until April 20 after an outbreak there.
One of the largest beef packers in the country, operated by JBS in Greeley, Colorado, is closed until April 24. At least 43 of its 6,000 employees have tested positive for the virus, 14 have been hospitalized and two have died.
Smithfield Foods this week shut down pork production in Sioux Falls, S.D., after more than 100 of its 3,700 workers tested positive for coronavirus.
On Sunday, South Dakota’s governor ordered that plant shuttered for two weeks. Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan said that plant supplies 4% to 5% of all pork in the U.S. and that the nation’s meat supply was “perilously close to the edge.”
“We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic,” Sullivan said in a company release. “We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: We are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”
Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo is working hard to avoid an outbreak, company officials and county health officials say.
“Protecting our team members is a top priority for us,” said Liz Croston, a spokesperson for Tyson. “We are continually educating our team members about the importance of social distancing, and we’ve implemented a variety of measures to protect our team members during this challenging time.”
Those measures included deep cleaning and sanitizing facilities, including employee break rooms and locker rooms; checking the temperature of workers before they enter the plant; adding clear plastic shields between work stations and break room tables; and allowing more time between shifts to reduce the number of employees coming into contact with one another.
Two Tyson employees in Waterloo who didn’t want to give their names for fear of losing their jobs told The Courier they believe coronavirus has already hit the plant.
“The Tyson plant with the outbreak of 80+ people in Iowa is way smaller than the Waterloo plant,” said one employee in a message Tuesday. He said he heard there were multiple confirmed cases among workers. “If this place doesn’t shut down soon, there’s nothing there that will effectively slow the spread to point we won’t see higher numbers.”
Another employee sent a message to The Courier’s news tip form online alleging specific employees had tested positive.
“Tyson is trying to keep it a secret,” the second employee claimed.
In a statement, Croston did not confirm or deny there were infected employees at the Waterloo plant.
She said Tyson was “working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation,” and the company had relaxed its policy of penalizing workers for absenteeism as well as “eliminated the waiting period for short-term disability.” Both changes are designed to “encourage workers to stay at home” if they were sick.
Croston noted the changes have been “communicated to our team members” in several languages and posted in Tyson facilities.
“When we learn an employee has experienced symptoms and tested positive, they remain on sick leave until they are released by health officials to return to work,” Croston said. “We also affirmatively notify anyone who has been in close contact with the positive team member.”
Black Hawk County officials said Monday they are unable to disclose information on outbreaks, saying it is the state’s prerogative.
But Sheriff Tony Thompson said officials were working closely with Tyson and other businesses on best practices like cleaning, disinfecting and social distancing in their work stations and break rooms.
“I think the biggest problem with the meatpacking plants is the nature of the employees they have,” Thompson said, adding there are cultural and language barriers to be surmounted in relaying accurate information.
He said the Tyson workforce poses challenges.
“When you have cultures that have two or three families living in the same dwelling — up to nine, 16 people living in the same house — it’s very tough to distinguish that now, you live so close, but when you go to work you have to stay six feet apart from each other,” Thompson said. “So Tyson’s would be a good example of a company that we’re working very closely with, trying to partner with, and making sure that they’re exercising the best practices possible.”
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