By Tom Polansek and Andy Sullivan
CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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.
Nationwide, 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 told Reuters that 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, told Reuters 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.
The USDA and the White House declined to comment for this story. Tyson, Smithfield and other meatpackers say they have taken extensive safety measures, at great cost, to protect workers.
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.”
FIGHTING INFECTION, FEAR
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 to Reuters. Smithfield declined to disclose its levels of absenteeism.
Sandra Sibert – a 47-year old who works on the plant’s ham bone table and caught the virus – said it is not easy to stay six feet apart in the locker room and cafeteria. Sibert said she grew worried after the plant reopened when a female employee with an infected husband was allowed to work while awaiting her test results.
“I worry about everybody,” Sibert said.
ABSENCES SHUT PLANT
Tyson’s Columbus Junction, Iowa plant closed on April 6, when surrounding Louisa County had just six known cases and no deaths. When it reopened on April 21, the county had recorded 215 cases and 2 deaths. As of May 29, there were 352 known cases and 11 deaths.
Tyson, the top U.S. meat supplier, declined to say how many employees are missing work, but said absenteeism had declined to its lowest percentage since before the pandemic at its Columbus Junction plant and another Iowa plant, in Waterloo.
Tyson had to halt operations at its pork plant in Storm Lake, Iowa in late May – a month after the president’s order to reopen – partly because of “team member absences related to quarantine and other factors,” the company said in a statement. The plant restarted limited operations on June 3.
The company said that 591 workers, or 26% of its workforce, had tested positive. Surrounding Buena Vista county, where many workers live, has one of the nation’s highest infection rates, with 1,257 cases, a fivefold increase over the past two weeks.
Tyson warned in an earnings report last month that worker shortages were expected to contribute to more production slowdowns and plant shutdowns. The company said in a statement that it is continually working to improve safety and social-distancing protocols.
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.
Worker-safety measures still sometimes came up short, according to CDC officials. They noted in a report, for instance, that “many people” at a National Beef plant in Dodge City, Kansas, were not wearing masks that covered their noses, and that some only wore face shields that would do little to slow the spread of the disease.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Andy Sullivan in Washington D.C.; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)