US union reports that more than 5,000 meat and food processing workers were exposed to coronavirus

The largest meatpacking union in the US says that more than 5,000 meat and food processing workers have been exposed or infected with the novel coronavirus.
calendar icon 24 April 2020
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According to reporting from Reuters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has recorded 13 worker deaths due to COVID-19.

Their report is reflective of how the illness has spread rapidly through slaughterhouses where large groups of employees often work shoulder to shoulder in difficult conditions.

Major meat processors like JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc have indefinitely shuttered beef and pork plants due to outbreaks among workers, restricting US production as demand has increased at grocery stores.

In response to coronavirus, companies say they are checking workers’ temperatures, working alongside local health authorities and taking additional steps to curb the spread of the virus.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is pushing government officials to provide more protective equipment like masks for plant employees, after saying workers did not have enough.

The union has 250,000 members who are meat and food-processing workers and represent about 80 percent of US beef and pork production and 40 percent of poultry production.

In a conference call organised by the union, plant workers said they are afraid of falling ill despite newly adopted safety measures like bleaching hallways and doorways and installing dividers to separate employees.

"As far as social distancing, it's almost impossible," said Margarita Heredia, who works in a JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. "There's no room."

Brazilian-owned JBS did not respond to a request for comment. Cargill Inc expressed sympathies for employees affected by the virus, while Tyson Foods said it was deeply saddened by employees' deaths.

"We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people," Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said.

Separately, the USDA is trying to source face masks for federal inspectors who work in meat plants. Supplies are limited due to skyrocketing demand, requiring some inspectors to provide their own masks, the USDA said.

As a result, the USDA authorised a one-time reimbursement of $50 to Food Safety and Inspection Service employees who must work away from home.

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