U.S. meat factories relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols after outbreaks: unions

CHICAGO, Dec.21 (Reuters) – Smithfield Foods (SFII.UL), the world’s largest pork producer, last year assigned a team of dedicated employees to enforce social distancing and clean up surfaces in a slaughterhouse in South Dakota where COVID-19 has infected nearly 1,300 workers, the local union president said.

Now that role no longer exists, the company confirmed.

The factory has gradually moved employees who worked as security checkers to other positions, said BJ Motley, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union branch that represents Smithfield workers at Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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Smithfield, which is owned by Hong Kong-listed WH Group Ltd (0288.HK), said it transferred the duties of monitors to other staff starting in the second quarter of this year because of COVID-security protocols. 19 became “second nature” and vaccines were available. Regarding cleaning, the company said the facilities were “routinely sanitized for food safety reasons.”

Across the country, US meat and chicken factories that reported some of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreaks last year have relaxed or adjusted protective measures implemented near the start of the pandemic, according to interviews with 10 factory workers, union officials and worker advocates.

Safety concerns at slaughterhouses, where workers are often close, have made it more difficult for meat processors to hire and retain workers at a time when labor is already scarce and demand is booming. boom. Read more

Meat companies including Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) and JBS USA (JBS.UL) say employee health is a top priority and they need face masks in factories, although many many states have relaxed COVID-19 masks and social distancing rules.

Workers and advocates say companies could do more as the contagious Omicron variant rages and soaring meat prices boost profits. Read more

“We don’t have anybody monitoring social distancing. Nobody is wiping the tables. It’s really back to normal,” Motley said.

About 59,000 meat packing workers were infected with COVID-19 through January at US factories run by Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, Cargill Inc (CARG.UL) and National Beef Packing Company (NBEEF.UL) , according to a US House of Representatives subcommittee report in October in the most comprehensive data to date. Read more

Smithfield said it has invested more than $ 800 million to protect employees from COVID-19 and follow federal health and safety guidelines.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Smithfield in 2020 for failing to protect Sioux Falls workers from COVID-19 and said last month the company had agreed to assess its procedures operating within the framework of a regulation. Smithfield said the quote was baseless last year.

In addition to masks, Smithfield uses barriers between workstations and social distancing “where possible” to keep employees safe, spokesman Jim Monroe said.

“We have in no way canceled the COVID-19 security protocols,” he said. “We are confident that our protective measures are effective in mitigating COVID-19 disease among our employees. “

A Smithfield factory in Vernon, Calif., Operating as Farmer John, stopped having employees working as social distance monitors about three months ago, said Darryl Blackwell, a UFCW shop steward. which slices the pork fat in the plant. He would like to see them come back.

“It’s pretty much doing whatever you want when it comes to social distancing,” he said. “With this new variant, you can’t be too careful.”

Smithfield confirmed that he transferred the duties of the monitors to other workers. The company did not provide data on vaccination rates. He said Smithfield has hosted around 200 on-site vaccination campaigns including boosters and the injections are widely available.

“Our vaccination and case rates are excellent,” said Monroe.

Motley estimated that the South Dakota plant is around 60% vaccinated, compared to a rate of around 65% nationally. He and Blackwell said the boosters were not offered at their facilities.

‘ELBOW TO ELBOW AGAIN’

Rival meat processor JBS USA, owned by Brazilian JBS SA (JBSS3.SA), last year began staggering employee break times at slaughterhouses to promote physical distancing. In July 2021, the company ended the practice at a massive beef factory in Greeley, Colorado, said the union branch of UFCW Local 7 which represents workers at the plant.

“Unless they’re rebuilding the factory or slowing the speed of the lines, they’re still neck and neck in the factory,” said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7.

Company spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said JBS keeps the vast majority of COVID-19 protocols in place and adjusts procedures as it assesses cases among employees and in the community.

The Greeley plant has reported more than 400 cases of COVID-19 among workers, including 19 since October 25, 2021, state data shows.

JBS said the Greeley plant has an 80% vaccination rate and 35% have received boosters, while 86% of all its workers are vaccinated. New recruits must be vaccinated. Read more

Tyson Foods, the only major meat packer that requires vaccinations for all workers, said its rate was over 96% and factories had started offering boosters. Read more

A worker at a Tyson chicken plant in Rogers, Arkansas, said management told him the plant had stopped asking employees to monitor social distancing.

The duties of the monitors have been transferred to plant management and maintenance personnel, Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson said. The facilities also have signs encouraging social distancing, he said.

Another chicken processor, Wayne Farms, has a vaccination rate of just 31% at a plant in Decatur, Ala., And 42% company-wide, said spokesperson Frank Singleton. The Decatur plant has not reported any positive cases of COVID-19 since November 22, he said on Friday.

Wayne Farms once paid Mona Darby, who worked at the Decatur plant for 34 years, to come to work 20 to 30 minutes earlier to enforce mask wear as other workers arrived, said she declared. Darby estimated that half of the workers were wearing their nose and mouth masks correctly.

The company has ended this role and halted staggered breaks for employees over the summer, said Darby, also a local leader of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union. .

Singleton said Darby’s help was not needed as almost all workers comply with the requirement to wear masks.

The Decatur plant operates two production lines, up from five before the pandemic, as employees quit, Darby said.

The company confirmed it operates two lines and has been hit by a labor shortage, but said it still processes the same number of chickens per day.

“They just can’t make anybody stay,” Darby said.

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Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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