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U.S. Meat Workers Are Quitting as Virus-Ridden Plants Reopen
USAgNet - 05/06/2020

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.

According to Bloomberg News, employees are taking leave, paid and unpaid -- or just quitting. At a JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado, absenteeism is running as high as 30%. Before the pandemic, it was about 13%. The company is paying about 10% 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 labor 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. Prices of beef and pork are surging amid plant woes

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 plexiglass barriers to separate people.

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

The company has had more success at its plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, which also reopened recently and is running "beyond expectations," JBS 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.

Shutdowns at the massive plants have created bottlenecks in supply, which could continue amid absenteeism. Giant producers have such a stranglehold on output that it leaves few remedies when even a handful of facilities slow, leaving farmers with decreased options for selling their animals.

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