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US meat packing plants working below capacity, unable to control coronavirus spread

Tuesday, June 16th 2020 - 07:32 UTC
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Across US, 30%/50% of meatpacking employees were absent last week, said Mark Lauritsen, a vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Across US, 30%/50% of meatpacking employees were absent last week, said Mark Lauritsen, a vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union

Smithfield Foods Inc is missing about a third of its employees at a South Dakota pork plant because they are quarantined or afraid to return to work after a severe coronavirus outbreak, according to the workers' union.

Tyson Foods Inc was forced to briefly close its Storm Lake, Iowa plant - a month after U.S. President Donald Trump's April 28 order telling meatpackers to stay open - as worker absences hobbled its slaughter operations.

Across the US, 30% to 50% of meatpacking employees were absent last week, said Mark Lauritsen, a vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

More than a dozen meatpacking workers, union leaders and advocates said many employees still fear getting sick after losing confidence in management during coronavirus outbreaks in April and May. Absenteeism varies by plant, and exact data is not available, but some workers' unwillingness to return poses a challenge to an industry still struggling to restore normal meat output.

Daily pork production was down by as much as 45% in late April as some 20 plants closed because of outbreaks. Production has rebounded since plants reopened last month in response to Trump's order, but remains down from before the pandemic. The UFCW union, which represents about 80% of U.S. pork and beef production revealed that major pork plants are running at about 75% capacity.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that processors slaughtered about 438,000 hogs on Friday, down 12% from the peak before the pandemic.

Meat companies have prevented the pace of slaughter from falling further by bolstering kill lines with employees from other operations that require more labor, such as butchering and deboning. As a result, meatpackers are producing fewer products that require extra work - such as boneless hams - and throwing away items like offal that otherwise would be sold, Lauritsen said.

The cure for absenteeism is a safe job at a decent wage, Lauritsen said. “Right now” he said, “there are employees that don't see the safe job part.”

Plants became hotbeds of infection because they house thousands of employees working in close quarters. Outbreaks tightened meat supplies and contributed to a 40.4% surge in prices in May.

The world's biggest meat companies have spent tens of millions of dollars to protect workers by erecting physical barriers, taking workers' temperatures, providing protective gear and staggering break times. They have not been able to eliminate infections, however.

“They have changed a lot of things that I think are great,” said Alejandro Murgioa-Ortiz, a community organizer who works with meatpacking workers in Iowa and Nebraska. But workers remain wary, he said, because “there's still so many risks.”

Infections have risen steadily in rural counties that are home to large meatpacking plants since Trump ordered them to stay open. At least 15 meatpacking counties now report a higher infection rate, on a per capita basis, than New York City, the virus's epicenter – though that is likely a reflection of the extensive testing of workers and local residents along with elevated infection rates.

In Kansas, 2,896 meat workers have tested positive, accounting for nearly one third of all cases in the state, according to the state health department.

At the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about 1,200 employees - about a third of the workforce - were absent as of June 1, including some who quit, said BJ Motley, president of the UFCW local. The plant closed from about April 15 to May 7 as more than 850 workers tested positive for the virus.

Smithfield, owned by China's WH Group Ltd , said it has implemented aggressive measures to protect employees. “Absenteeism remains a challenge, but we are managing,” the company said in a statement

In Kansas, more than 2,900 workers were absent in late April and early May from five plants run by Tyson, Cargill Inc and National Beef Packing Company , according to reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

National Beef said it has focused on protecting its employees while running plants to produce meat for consumers.


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