Des Moines Register – Iowa JBS workers tell advocates they’re packed in too tight to stay safe from coronavirus
Iowa JBS workers tell advocates they’re packed in too tight to stay safe from coronavirus
Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register Published 5:53 p.m. CT March 31, 2020
A Latino advocacy group is questioning whether meatpacking giant JBS is doing enough to protect the 2,700 workers at its Marshalltown pork processing plant, saying employees are crowded on the company’s production floor, in locker rooms and in other parts of the facility.
The Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens’ concerns come as JBS USA has confirmed that a worker at its pork processing plant in Ottumwa tested positive for COVID-19; another employee from that plant is self-isolating at home.
COVID-19 is the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Nearly 500 Iowans had tested positive for the illness through Tuesday.
Although federal health officials do not consider COVID-19 to be a food safety concern, health officials recommend that workers providing essential services, such as food processing, maintain a safe distance from one another to avoid spreading infection.
Workers are getting ready at the JBS plant in Marshalltown last week. Workers have complained that some parts of the plant are crowded, making it unsafe for workers trying to avoid the spread of coronavirus. The photos were supplied to the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens. (Photo: Contributed/he Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens)
"Meatpacking plants are high-density workplaces," said Joe Henry, president of the LULAC’s Council 307 in Des Moines, who was contacted by Latino workers in Marshalltown about the crowded conditions.
"If somebody gets sick in those tight quarters … it will wreak havoc," with infected workers spreading the virus in the plant, to their family members and others across the community, Henry said.
JBS and other meat processing companies with large plants in Iowa say they’re taking action to protect workers, including checking their temperatures and looking for other symptoms of the coronavirus before employees enter plants; staggering shifts and breaks; and providing more space for workers on the production floor and in break rooms.
JBS USA says it’s taking precautions to protect workers at its Iowa plants, including taking employees’ temperatures before they enter the workplace, staggering start and break schedules, and providing a tent so workers have more room for meals. (Photo: Contributed/Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens)
JBS also has put up tents for breaks so workers have more room for social distancing. At the Marshalltown plant, the company hired 12 new workers to help deep clean and sanitize the facility, especially common areas for employees, in addition to its normal cleaning crew, said Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman.
"We are committed to safely helping see our team members, families and community through this challenging time," Bruett said in an email.
Henry said he has talked with four Marshalltown employees with concerns. He said the added measures are welcome, but they’re not enough to fully protect employees.
Photographs employees said they took last week and provided to LULAC show tight locker rooms where workers change into protective clothing. Production workers also are packed together while cutting meat, Henry said employees have told him. And despite the staggered shifts, employees clog entrances and exits to the plant.
Even a free meal to thank workers last week had employees lined up close together, they told Henry.
Henry said shift sizes should be reduced so employees aren’t working as closely together. Employees also said they want more protective equipment, such as masks and goggles.
Workers are getting ready at the JBS plant in Marshalltown last week. Workers have complained that some parts of the plant are crowded, making it unsafe for workers trying to avoid the spread of coronavirus. The photos were supplied to the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens. (Photo: Contributed/Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens)
LULAC’s national president, Domingo Garcia, sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Labor, asking that companies do more to protect production workers who are providing the nation with food.
At a time when meat and poultry workers are "labeled ‘essential,’ they are being exposed with little recourse," Garcia wrote to Loren Sweatt, the assistant secretary who oversees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly referred to as OSHA.
"As millions are filing for unemployment, meatpackers continue to do grueling shoulder-to-shoulder work even when sick, for fear of losing their jobs," Garcia wrote. "The Latino community is unduly impacted given the fact that they make up a significant number of workers in these industries. In addition, many of them are undocumented and have little access to healthcare and financial help."
Henry also said immigrant or undocumented workers may be reluctant to complain about unsafe work conditions. And workers for whom English is not their first language may not fully understand the COVID-19 threat, he said.
Henry said he is working with employees at Iowa meat and poultry plants to file a complaint with the state’s OSHA office, housed in Iowa Workforce Development.
The agency said last week it could not immediately respond to questions about worker complaints tied to COVID-19, given the public health emergency and high volume of unemployment insurance calls and emails.
Workers at the JBS plant in Marshalltown complained that some parts of the plant are crowded, making it unsafe for workers trying to avoid the spread of coronavirus. This photo, supplied to the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens, shows employees lined up for a company lunch to thank them for their work during the pandemic. (Photo: Contributed/Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens)
Abraham White, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers at the plant, said the group was in the process of "providing additional safety equipment to strengthen workplace protections." Des Moines Register requests for details went unanswered.
On its website, the union urges workers to provide information about coronavirus-related concerns. White didn’t respond to requests for that information.
Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the Northern American Meat Institute, said companies are sharing information about how best to keep workers safe.
"Food production has been designated critical infrastructure," Little said in an email. "The meat and poultry industry has a special duty to keep operating to provide food for families around the globe but also for those fighting the virus in the U.S."
In addition to safety precautions, many companies are offering more health benefits, such as paying deductibles and copays for coronavirus-related care and offering paid sick leave, Little said.
Some are offering bonuses and pay increases, she said.
White said all union members at JBS will be paid an extra $600, regardless of attendance, "in recognition of their hard work and essential service during this outbreak."
In addition to JBS, the union said other Iowa meat processors are paying bonuses or wage increases. Among them: ConAgra will pay employees a $500 bonus in April; Seaboard Triumph is paying employees an extra $100 each week from Monday through April 26; and Cargill is paying workers $2 an hour more between March 23 and May 5.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller or 515-284-8457.
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