The plight of meat processors across the nation boiled over Monday in Cold Spring, where workers protested what they say are dangerous working conditions that leave them with two choices — continue to risk contracting a potentially deadly disease or be fired.
As of Monday, state health workers had confirmed 194 COVID-19 cases among workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant — more than double the 83 cases just four days ago.
“We’re hoping the company will sanitize the whole facility so that the workers can safely return to work,” said Pablo Tapia, one of the rally organizers. Pilgrim’s Pride “needs to be responsible. They knew this was happening and they just kept ignoring it.”
In a statement Monday, Pilgrim’s Pride said it has “implemented a wide of range of measures to combat coronavirus” at the Cold Spring plant. “We know some people are scared and anxious, and we are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facility.”
The Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant, which employs more than 1,100, is the site of the largest COVID-19 workplace outbreak in Minnesota outside of JBS’ sprawling pork plant in Worthington. The JBS plant had 541 confirmed cases as of Monday.
Outbreaks at the Cold Spring plant and at several other facilities in the region have fueled a spike in confirmed cases over the past few weeks, rapidly making the St. Cloud area a COVID hot zone.
Since many of the Cold Spring workers live with family members in St. Cloud and throughout the region, state officials say the Cold Spring plant has been a significant driver of the now more than 1,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Stearns County — second-highest in the state after Hennepin County, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Dozens of workers have reached out to union and religious leaders to intervene on their behalf, said Ma Elena Gutierrez, co-founder of the faith-based Asamblea de Derechos Civiles and a rally organizer.
“We want the workers to be safe, but this is a big danger not just for the workers and their families, but for people who don’t work here too,” Gutierrez said.
“The virus is going to go to all the people in Cold Spring, in St. Cloud, in all of the area.”
A Pilgrim’s Pride worker who said he has tested positive for the coronavirus and has spent the past two weeks in quarantine was at the rally Monday.
Through an interpreter, Abdulahi (who wouldn’t give his last name for fear of losing his job) said he lives with four family members in St. Cloud. So far, he said, they’ve tested negative for the virus.
“We are very afraid,” he said.
Organizers said company officials have not responded to their requests.
Pilgrim’s Pride also said it’s enacting specific measures, including: checking all workers’ temperatures before they enter the plant; providing face masks that must be worn at all times; increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms; and increasing sanitization and cleaning.
A Pilgrim’s Pride executive is scheduled to speak Tuesday to the Cold Spring City Council about COVID-19 screening and mitigation strategies at the chicken plant.
Representatives for the workers are also slated to give a presentation at the meeting.
Pilgrim’s Pride bought the Cold Spring plant in 2017 as part of its purchase of GNP Co. and the Gold’n Plump chicken brand.
Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the nation’s largest chicken processors, is majority-owned by Brazilian global meat giant JBS S.A.
Three Jennie-O turkey processing plants in central Minnesota with considerably fewer cases than the Pilgrim’s Pride plant have been temporarily closed.
The Jennie-O turkey packing house in Melrose, also in Stearns County, had 26 confirmed cases Monday while Jennie-O’s two plants in Willmar had a combined 104 cases, according to the Health Department.
All three of those plants were idled from April 24 to April 28, when each had fewer than 20 cases. Jennie-O, an arm of Austin-based Hormel Foods, did a deep-cleaning of the plants and beefed up what they called “already robust” safety procedures. The Melrose plant and one of the Jennie-O Willmar plants reopened late last week.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry last week confirmed that Minnesota OSHA opened an investigation at Pilgrim’s Pride on April 28 after receiving a complaint.
The department generally doesn’t disclose who files OSHA complaints.