Staff fear re­turn­ing to work af­ter out­breaks

Calgary Herald - - FINANCIAL POST - JEN SKERRITT and LY­DIA MULVANY

Amer­ica’s meat-pro­cess­ing plants are start­ing to re­open, but not all work­ers are show­ing up. Some still fear they’ll get sick af­ter coro­n­avirus out­breaks shut more than a dozen fa­cil­i­ties last month. Em­ploy­ees are tak­ing leave, paid and un­paid — or just quit­ting.

At a JBS USA plant in Gree­ley, Colo., ab­sen­teeism is run­ning as high as 30 per cent. Be­fore the pan­demic, it was about 13 per cent. The com­pany is pay­ing about 10 per cent of the work­force — peo­ple deemed vul­ner­a­ble — to stay home. Oth­ers aren’t com­ing in be­cause they are sick.

But some work­ers are stay­ing home be­cause they are “scared,” ac­cord­ing to Kim Cor­dova, pres­i­dent of United Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers Lo­cal 7 union, which rep­re­sents work­ers at the plant. She couldn’t pro­vide spe­cific num­bers but noted on a re­cent visit that pro­duc­tion speeds at the plant were “re­ally slow” be­cause of the labour crunch.

Meat plants have been at the nexus of coro­n­avirus hot spots across Amer­ica’s ru­ral heart­land. The dis­ease spread through plants in March and April as com­pa­nies strug­gled to adapt their work­places to new rules dic­tated by the pan­demic. As ab­sen­teeism per­sists, the U.S. is at risk of con­tin­ued meat short­ages and higher prices, even af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der to keep plants run­ning.

JBS is fol­low­ing fed­eral “guid­ance around safety and so­cial dis­tanc­ing, and we’re do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to pro­vide a safe work­ing en­vi­ron­ment for our team mem­bers who have been ea­ger to get back to work,” the com­pany said in an emailed state­ment to Bloomberg.

At the Colorado plant, JBS says it has given out masks and face shields and put up Plex­i­glas bar­ri­ers to sep­a­rate peo­ple.

Work­ers still need higher qual­ity pro­tec­tive equip­ment, and there are still ar­eas where em­ploy­ees can’t so­cial dis­tance, Cor­dova said.

“If they don’t mit­i­gate, we’re go­ing to con­tinue the cy­cle of work­ers

If they don’t mit­i­gate, we’re go­ing to con­tinue the cy­cle of work­ers dy­ing and work­ers get­ting sick.

dy­ing and work­ers get­ting sick,” she said.

Con­di­tions at U.S. meat plants con­trib­uted to in­creased risk of in­fec­tions, and ul­ti­mately more than 4,900 work­ers fell ill, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion. The agency cited dif­fi­culty main­tain­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing and ad­her­ing to the height­ened clean­ing and dis­in­fec­tion guid­ance among the fac­tors that in­creased risks for work­ers.

There were 20 deaths among em­ploy­ees as the virus spread to 115 meat plants across 19 states, data through late April showed.

MICHAEL CIAGLO/BLOOMBERG

Work­ers stand out­side the JBS USA beef pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity in Gree­ley, Colo., last month. Ab­sen­teeism at the plant has in­creased as high as 30 per cent dur­ing the pan­demic. Meat plants have been coro­n­avirus hot spots across Amer­ica’s ru­ral heart­land.

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