Major meat companies count on health protocols and incentives to keep employees on job

Most days during the coronavirus crisis, the parking lot at the big JBS beef plant in Greeley, CO, is full, a sign of normalcy. The exception was this past Monday when the union president claimed 1,000 of the people who slaughter and process beef at the plant walked out because of fear that as many as 10 JBS employees who work at the  Greeley plant have tested positive for COVID-19.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett told local media that since school closures went into effect about 500 employees have been absent at some point during recent weeks. He suggested the absences and Monday walk out together topped ou at around 830 employees

Food processing is defined as essential work, according to all the executive “stay at home orders.” The trick for JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, and other meat and poultry producers is keeping enough of their workforce healthy to meet the demand that’s out there.  A lot of people are involved, those top three companies together employ 359,000.

Demand is tricky to figure out. Two weeks ago, all the fresh beef, pork, and poultry were being swept up along with toilet paper by spooked consumers. More recently, however, beef futures have slumped and producers are worried about the loss of restaurant customers.

JBS has temporarily cut back production at Souderton, PA, because several senior managers at the plant are experiencing “flu-like” symptoms. And there are spotty reports of meat and poultry industry employees testing positive for COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. Posted COVID-19 information on the JBS website says it follows emergency protocols “for any team member who shows symptoms.”

Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Greeley, said JBS does not provide paid sick leave, but should for the COVIG-19 cases. Further, the union wants the company to identify the location(s) in the plant where any persons sickened with COVID-19  worked.

About 3,000 JBS employees are represented by Local 7.

No less a figure than Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has urged the people “at the front lines of our food supply chain” to “stay on the job.”

Tyson Foods is hoping to do just that with a promise to pay $500 in July to all its 116,000 drivers and production personnel who continue “feeding the nation” through the outbreak.

“We’re proud of how our team members have stepped up during this challenging time to make sure we continue fulfilling our critical mission of feeding people across America,” said Noel White, Tyson’s CEO.

The $500 payments will be made during the first week of July, according to the company. Tyson Foods previously waived copays for COVIG-19 testing and eliminated the 5-day waiting period for disability payments. It also contributed $13 million to local communities where it operates.

Springdale-AR-based Tyson employs 114,000 including 2,900 drivers.

Since the rapid global spread of the COVID-19 virus, the demand for disinfecting alcohol — to sanitize surfaces — has increased dramatically with many health institutions throughout Europe are facing imminent shortages.

The privately held Cargill said it was skipping its third-quarter financial report in part because it is busy caring for its employees.

“As we work to keep our employees healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic — and prioritize all 160,000 Cargill employees on the work that needs to be done to deliver on our purpose and produce the ingredients, feed, and food to nourish people and animals — we have decided to forgo our Q3 public earnings release,” Cargill said.

“We are working around the clock with farmers and our customers — the nation’s food retailers, service providers, and restaurant chains — to feed the world safely and responsibly during this unprecedented time. Our eye is on making the right day-to-day decisions to keep the food system moving during the pandemic — and looking to the future to ensure the food system stays viable around the world.”

The company runs on a June 1 to May 31 fiscal year. The third quarter is normally reported on March 31.

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