Thirteen members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union who work in meatpacking or food processing have died after contracting COVID-19, UFCW said on a media call today to press for personal protective equipment and testing.
While some companies have altered their operations to protect workers, “We’re not seeing the scope of the changes that are needed” in order to minimize worker exposure to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, UFCW President Marc Perrone said.
UFCW officials said about 6,500 UFCW workers in meatpacking and food processing have been "directly impacted" by the virus.
"As of today, and based on UFCW internal estimates, 10 meatpacking workers and 3 food processing workers have died," the union said. "In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. The estimates of those meatpacking and processing workers directly impacted include individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic.
In addition to the need for enough PPE such as facial masks and gloves, “We must in fact prioritize these workers for testing; far too little testing is taking place,” Perrone said.
In general, union members on the call from five different plants — including the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., that has been closed since becoming one of the biggest hot spots for the virus in the country — spoke positively about the actions their employers have taken to protect them, including thermal screening, temperature tests, provision of personal protective equipment, and the placement of barriers between workers.
“They’re doing a really good job,” especially with keeping workers separated, said Margarita Heredia, who works at the JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, where 34 workers had tested positive as of a couple of days go. She did say JBS needs to do a better job communicating with its employees.
“Our plant has taken a lot of measures to protect us,” said Tony Adams, who works at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant on Athens, Ga., though some of those measures that were taken, such as increased spacing in the cafeteria, came “after the virus got really bad.”
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Itzel Goytia, who works at a Cargill beef plant in Dodge City, Kan., said the company began supplying masks last week. While helpful, she added, “I believe the precautions came a bit late.”
Perrone and Mark Lauritsen, director of UFCW’s food processing, packing and manufacturing division, also said line speeds should not be increased at meat plants. The Food Safety and Inspection Service approved 16 waivers in March and April allowing poultry plants to increase their line speeds.
“We need clear and concise guidelines” top keep workers safe, Perrone said. UFCW sent a letter to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue April 20 calling for immediate access to PPE; prioritization of meatpacking workers for testing; the mandating of social distancing where possible; isolation of workers who show symptoms or test positive for the virus, and an end to the poultry line-speed waivers.
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