TheDairySite.com - news, features, articles and disease information for the dairy industry

News

North American meat plant workers fall in and walk off jobs due to COVID-19

14 April 2020

In the recent “Focus – Elbow to elbow” analysis from Tom Polansek and Rod Nickel of Reuters, reporters find widespread walk outs among North American meat packers and processors as coronavirus erodes the workforce – putting the meat supply chain in jeopardy.

According to Polansek and Nickel's reporting, nearly a third of the workers at a Colorado JBS USA beef plant stayed at home amid safety concerns for the last two weeks as a 30-year employee of the facility died following complications from the virus.

According to more than a dozen interviews with US and Canadian plant workers, union leaders and industry analysts, a lack of protective equipment and the nature of "elbow to elbow" work required to debone chickens, chop beef and slice hams are highlighting risks for employees and limiting output as some forego the low-paying work. Companies that added protections, such as enhanced cleaning or spacing out workers, say the moves are further slowing meat production.

Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest pork processor, on Sunday said it is indefinitely shutting a pork plant that accounts for about 4 percent to 5 percent of US production. It warned that plant shutdowns are pushing the United States "perilously close to the edge" in meat supplies for grocers.

Lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers across the globe from delivering food products to consumers. Millions of labourers also cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to keep goods moving.

The United States and Canada are among the world's biggest shippers of beef and pork. Food production has continued as governments try to ensure adequate supplies, even as they close broad swathes of the economy.

The closures and increased absenteeism among workers have contributed to drops in the price of livestock, as farmers find fewer places for slaughter. Since 25 March, live cattle prices shed 15 percent, straining the US farm economy.

North American meat demand has dropped some 30 percent in the past month as declining sales of restaurant meats like steaks and chicken wings outweighed a spike in retail demand for ground beef, said Christine McCracken, Rabobank's animal protein analyst.

Frozen meats in US cold storage facilities remain plentiful, but supply could be whittled down as exports to protein-hungry China increase after a trade agreement removed obstacles for American meat purchases.

"There's a huge risk of additional plant closures," McCracken said.

The latest came on Monday 13 April when JBS said it will shutter its Greeley, Colorado, beef plant, which accounts for about 5 percent of the country's production, until 24 April.

JBS previously had to reduce production at the facility as about 800 to 1,000 workers a day stayed home since the end of March, said Kim Cordova, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union that represents employees. She added that the union knew of at least 50 cases and two deaths among employees as of Friday.

Plant worker Saul Sanchez, known affectionately as "grandpa" among some co-workers, tested positive for the virus and died on 7 April at 78 years old, according to his daughter, Beatriz Rangel. She said he only went from home to work before developing symptoms, including a low fever.

"I'm heartbroken because my dad was so loyal," Rangel said.

Brazilian owned JBS confirmed an employee with three decades of experience died from complications associated with COVID-19, without naming Sanchez. He was never symptomatic while at work and never worked in the facility while sick, according to the company.

JBS said it was working with federal and state governments to obtain tests for all plant employees.
Weld County, where the plant is located, had the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in Colorado on Friday, according to the state. Health officials confirmed cases among JBS workers.

JBS said high absenteeism at the plant led the process of cutting carcasses into pieces of beef to fall behind slaughter rates. The company disputed the union's numbers on worker absences but did not provide its own. It took steps including buying masks and putting up plexiglass shields in lunch rooms to protect employees, said Cameron Bruett, spokesman for JBS USA.

Read the full analysis on the Thompson Reuters Foundation website



Partners


Seasonal Picks

Managing Pig Health: A Reference for the Farm - 2nd Edition