Meat Industry

Meat Plant Workers and Your Dinner at Risk in Coronavirus Pandemic

A worker at a Pennsylvania beef plant died this month from the virus, and a Delaware poultry processor was forced to euthanize millions of chickens because of staffing problems

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Enock Benjamin spent his last weeks at a Montgomery County beef packaging plant making sure his coworkers were staying safe.

Benjamin, who immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, worked at the JBS plant in Souderton. He led citizenship workshops there and served as the union steward for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. That meant he was the link between workers and management, in a time where the coronavirus pandemic has the world on lockdown and questioning norms and in an industry where workers are often in close proximity while on the job.

“He was a very well-liked, respected, well-loved guy,” said Wendell Young IV, the local's president. "And he spent those last weeks going around making sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to do."

Benjamin died of the coronavirus at home in Philadelphia on April 3. It wasn't clear where he got the virus, but 119 cases were reported at the JBS plant to date, the union said. The plant employs more than 1,400. It was one of several in the region that had to close for safety after virus cases among workers.

Enock Benjamin
Union provided photo
Enock Benjamin

Nationwide, some plants are struggling with employee attendance, leading to concerns about the nation's meat supply – production has dipped with fewer workers on the line. On Tuesday, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, issuing an executive order declaring those businesses to be essential and to keep operating to avoid shortages.

Many of the plants that had to close in recent weeks have since reopened with new safety measures, and there is new federal guidance on that this week. But concerns remain about the meat plants as pathways of infection among workers.

In Delaware, Sussex County has been hit hardest by the virus, with Tuesday's numbers showing 46 percent of the cases despite only having 25 percent of the total population. Officials said the spread in that most southern county may be tied to the poultry industry concentrated there.

Overall, labor advocates say there’s more to be done, especially at the federal level, to protect workers and the public.

Closed for Safety

These are hands-on roles that can’t be done from home. And workers are in close proximity to one another.

Young, the union president, mentioned four plants that closed to prevent further spread of the virus.

Near Philadelphia, the plants to close were JBS Souderton - which boasts on its website to be the largest beef facility east of Chicago - and the CTI hamburger plant in King of Prussia. In Mifflintown, 45 miles northwest of Harrisburg, Empire Kosher Poultry closed, as did Cargill Meat Solutions, just outside of Hazleton.

All four plants have since reopened with new safety measures in place, Young said. The union represents workers at those plants, along with supermarkets, nursing homes and several other industries.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees butcher pork at a Smithfield Foods Inc. pork processing facility in Milan, Missouri, U.S., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Things have changed in the past few weeks. New safety measures include barriers between workers, temperature checks before entering, staggered start times and breaks, additional break areas to spread out workers and increased cleaning protocols.

It's not a perfect situation. Sometimes workers have to get up close to hear one another over the loud machinery, Young said. But a good move in that case is to lean in and out, ear first, to minimize contact.

“We have had team members impacted by coronavirus, including the tragic loss of life,” said Cameron Bruett of JBS. “Each case is heartbreaking. Our sympathies and condolences go out to everyone who has been impacted by COVID-19.”

Employers and the Law

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for the meat processing industry over the weekend, suggesting layouts like barriers, spacing workers apart and not facing each other, and some of the other measures Young mentioned.

Multiple people who spoke with NBC10 on Tuesday said the CDC’s guidelines don’t have any teeth. 

“Guidance is guidance, guidance is not mandatory,” said Nan Lassen, an attorney with Willig, Williams & Davidson who focuses exclusively on labor law.

She gauged plenty of employers’ reaction to the guidance as “oh, well we don’t have to do that, we can do it if we want to.”

The CDC has no enforcement power. That responsibility is taken up by OSHA, which has been hard to reach in the pandemic, Lassen and Young said.

“I’ve had workers call me after attempting to reach OSHA dozens of times about not having PPE, not having safe work practices, having completely unprotected expsosures” to the virus, Lassen added.

When reached for comment, an OSHA spokeswoman sent a link to an online statement about how the agency would handle the CDC guidelines, after "multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 among meat, pork and poultry processing facility workers."

President Donald Trump is using the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants hit hard by the coronavirus to stay open. More than a dozen plants have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers. One union says 20 employees have died.

OSHA will be less inclined to discipline businesses if there are "good faith attempts" to comply with the CDC's rules. And if a workplace is sued for alleged workplace exposures to the virus, but has made the good faith attempts at safety, "the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer’s compliance program," the statement said.

"Likewise, the Department of Labor will consider similar requests by workers if their employer has not taken steps in good faith to follow the Joint Meat Processing Guidance."

Lassen said employers need to understand that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic individuals. And multiple people said worker protections need to be in place that keep workers comfortable staying home out of caution.

“If you do not have policies in place for people to self-quarantine and seek testing, and make sure that’s paid for for them, and that’s paid time...people will start to rationalize why it’s OK to come to work,” Young said. “Make sure that people don’t face economic insecurity because they make the right choice to stay home to quarantine and get tested.”

Dr. Karyl Rattay, head of Delaware’s Division of Public Health, said staff from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) visited poultry plants in the state on Tuesday.

The officials from NIOSH - part of the CDC - were looking at data to help Delaware understand the spread and paths of infection, she said at the state's press conference.

Rattay also addressed the CDC guidelines on the industry and said that despite most of the safety measures having been implemented already, cases continued to increase.

When reviewing safety measures that should be in effect in workplaces, including meat plants, “I’m continually emphasizing to employers they’re not just keeping workers safe, they’re keeping themselves safe, they’re keeping the public safe,” Lassen said.

"We will endeavor to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe," Bruett said. "The health and safety of our team members remains our top priority."

Effects on Food Supply

President Trump's executive order came after reports that some companies had closed down plants or decreased production due to positive cases among workers. The pork industry in the Midwest was hit the hardest.

In Delaware’s press conference, Gov. John Carney said he was aware of reports that one company in the state had to euthanize 2 million chickens because of a lack of workers to process them. But sagging demand because of closures in the restaurant industry were also in the mix in that decision, he said.

Local officials have been asking him what will be done to assist the farmers and growers who are impacted farther up the supply chain from the plants.

“It’s a complicated and very involved food chain that goes all the way back to the individual family farmer and grower across southern Delaware,” Carney said.

Some Philadelphia stores and butcher shops have been monitoring meat supplies amid worries over coronavirus-related shortages. Some shoppers are already planning for meals without meat. NBC10's Miguel Martinez-Valle reports.
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