Shoppers are filling their carts and freezers with meat as the coronavirus crisis forces Americans to stay home and cook more meals there.
But what happens when the workers who slice, process and package those chicken breasts, pot roasts and sausage links start to get sick?
As of Thursday, 28 workers at the massive JBS USA beef plant in Grand Island had tested positive for the coronavirus, representing a quarter of the 105 confirmed cases in the Grand Island area. The meatpacking plant is Grand Island’s largest employer, with 3,600 workers clocking in for different shifts.
A worker at the McCain Foods frozen french fry plant in Grand Island has tested positive, too. Because testing for the virus has been so limited, it’s hard to get a handle on how many may have been exposed.
Social distancing isn’t easy at plants where employees often stand nearly shoulder to shoulder on the production line, slaughtering and cutting chickens, pigs or cattle, or handling frozen or packaged foods. And when the virus gets inside a facility, it can spread quickly, threatening workers and food operations.
A Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that pumped out 18 million servings of meat per day announced Sunday it would close indefinitely, after initially deciding to close for three days for cleaning after more than 80 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Numerous Nebraska pork producers send their pigs to that plant.
Many workers are immigrants or refugees, including Latinos, Somalis and Karen from Myanmar. They are typically paid somewhere between $15 and $21 per hour for fast-paced, demanding work in chilly temperatures.
What’s on the mind of those workers these days?
“Primarily fear,” said Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293.
The union represents 10,000 food workers at JBS, Cargill, Nestlé, Omaha Steaks, Tyson and Smithfield plants located in both rural and urban areas: Omaha, Crete, Schuyler, Nebraska City, Grand Island and Tecumseh.
“There’s two types of workers as far as what they’re afraid of,” Reeder said. “You have the workers who are afraid of contracting the virus, and then you have the workers who are worried about losing their job or their home” if they have to quarantine or a plant halts production.
Hundreds of worried workers have called out sick from the JBS plant in recent days, he said.
Gleibis Rodriguez, an organizer with Heartland Workers Center, has talked to several workers at McCain Foods and JBS. A few who can afford it are taking two weeks off, unpaid, until the outbreak at the beef plant is contained.
The workers there are not a monolith, she said. Some told her the company should have taken action sooner to protect its employees, while others have praised JBS for the increased cleaning and disinfecting of work areas.
A JBS spokesman confirmed an uptick in absences but said “every day thousands of committed team members show up to the facility to help our nation face this crisis. We salute and thank them.”
Meat packing and processing is big business in Nebraska and Iowa. Plants say they are taking every precaution they can to limit the spread of the virus, while still churning out food to feed America and customers abroad. Plant representatives have said their employees are proud to be considered essential workers by the federal government.
“When you heard we were being requested to stay at home, what happened in our stores?” said Al Juhnke, the executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association. “All those shelves were emptied, including the meat case. But magically, if you’ve been in the store in the last week, all that product is back in place. People need to recognize that as bad as things are with COVID-19, what would make it even worse is a major disruption in our food supply.”
At several workplaces, workers’ temperatures are being taken at the start of shifts; Plexiglas dividers are being installed in cafeterias to separate workers; and plants are being carefully cleaned and even fogged with disinfectant. Employees at the JBS plant in Grand Island are wearing their usual gloves, frocks and hard hats, plus safety goggles and balaclavas that cover most of their face.
“We are not asking people to come to work here when they’re sick. I want to be very clear about that,” said Tim Schellpeper, who runs the JBS Fed Beef division, on a plant tour last week.
Tyson is trying to procure more personal protective equipment — like masks — from federal agencies, spokeswoman Liz Croston wrote in an email, and allowing workers to wear homemade face coverings in the meantime.
Some employers have boosted hourly pay or offered bonuses — sometimes with good attendance strings attached. The JBS plant in Grand Island gave out ribeyes on Friday. (The company’s giveaway was met with a mix of “When can I get mine?” enthusiasm and “Steaks, really?” skepticism from Facebook commenters.)
Advocacy groups like Heartland Workers Center, Nebraska Appleseed and the food workers union are pushing employers and state policymakers to implement stronger, more uniform safety measures, like slowing down production lines so people can spread out and giving workers paid sick leave and hazard pay.
The response from plants has been a mixed bag, Reeder said. Nestlé said it will continue to pay workers if a plant shuts down. Others have said overtime pay is enough — no hourly raises.
Across the country, workers have fallen ill at some of the biggest names in food.
Workers at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, have called in sick and complained about the lack of precautions there. A 78-year-old plant worker there died Tuesday from COVID-19 complications, although JBS officials deny he caught the virus at work. Union officials say at least two workers at a Tyson chicken plant in Georgia have died.
Several meat and food production facilities in Nebraska and western Iowa, including Tyson, Cargill, Michael Foods and Smithfield, declined to say whether any workers there have COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, citing medical privacy.
No confirmed cases have been reported at the chicken plant in Fremont run by Lincoln Premium Poultry, spokeswoman Jessica Kolterman said Friday. The plant takes in and carves up more than 1 million chickens a week for wholesaler Costco.
“We’ve been very fortunate we have not had any cases at this point, but we also recognize we have 1,100 people involved in our operation at some level,” Kolterman said. Coronavirus cases among a workforce that large is a very real possibility.
Food producers are trying to ease consumers’ fears about the safety of the food they’re plucking off shelves. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there is currently no evidence of the coronavirus being transmitted by food or food packaging.
But if workers contract the contagious coronavirus, the effects can ripple outward.
There is the personal: the impact on the workers who fall ill, their families who must quarantine and the community where they live, where the virus could spread.
The Hall County area, home to Grand Island, roughly 61,000 residents and several large manufacturers, has more confirmed coronavirus cases on a per capita basis than the much more populous Douglas County, where Omaha is located. Four people there have died.
“Grand Island stands on the front line in the fight against COVID-19 because we have many people employed in necessary jobs — manufacturing, food processing, agricultural equipment,” Mayor Roger Steele said last week at a press conference. “While other cities can ask office workers to work from home, that is not an option for our workers.”
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Cases aren’t emerging at just the JBS plant — health care workers at area clinics and nursing facilities have tested positive, too.
“Once it gets into the community, then it’s hard to say, is it in the plant or is it that the people in the community are then going to work at the plant?” said Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson, who oversees Hall, Merrick and Hamilton Counties. “At this point, it’s impossible to know where it started.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives health directors like Anderson the power to shut down facilities overseen by the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, but Anderson said any stricter measures would have to be approved by the governor or Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Then there is the business side. While one pork plant in South Dakota shutting down for a few days shouldn’t lead to shortages at the grocery store, multiple closures could sideline workers, slow production and cause backups for the farmers and ranchers who raise animals.
While plants with outbreaks should consider ceasing production temporarily, “you cannot close all of the food industry,” said Sergio Sosa, the executive director of the Heartland Workers Center. “We need food and workers need to get paid.”
Many farmers and ranchers were already struggling to recover from historic flooding last year and a fire at a Tyson processing plant in Kansas that disrupted beef markets.
“The idea that we’re buying more stuff at the grocery store, well that’s good, but that doesn’t matriculate back into greater incomes for agriculture,” said Brad Lubben, an extension agriculture economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It’s not as simple as shifting the bacon typically sold to eateries to grocery store coolers, said Lubben and Jennifer Ryan, a professor of supply chain management and analytics at UNL. Those supply chains are separate and distinct, often involving different cuts of meat and packaging, similar to the differences between commercial and home toilet paper.
“For a processed meat product like chicken tenders, you’ll see product sold to both restaurants and grocery stores,” Ryan said. “But the package sizes and labeling will be different.”
Ground beef may be a hot item for home cooks, but there’s a glut of the higher-end cuts typically served at restaurants, like ribeyes, filets and prime rib.
There’s not a shortage of product, supply chain experts said, so there’s no need to panic-buy meat.
“We have enough resiliency built into the system that we can continue to operate, unless we have multiple plants in a geographic area go down,” Juhnke said. “As long as you’re not hoarding.”
This report includes material from the World-Herald News Service.