Workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in Cold Spring held a protest Monday over the company’s lack of transparency surround COVID-19 cases and its policies surrounding the disease.
Mohamed Goni, staff organizer at the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, said he was at the protest and more than 100 workers walked off the job. The protest was over Pilgrim’s Pride’s lack of transparency about the disease’s spread and policies surrounding it.
Pilgrim’s Pride disputes the numbers, saying there were 20 people, including community activists, at the protest and production was not impacted.
The company says it has taken “extensive measures” to protect the plant’s over 1,100 workers. It declined to say if the plant had confirmed cases.
But the Minnesota Department of Health said there were 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases at Pilgrim’s Pride.
Pilgrim’s Pride and a Jennie-O turkey processing plant in Melrose constitute the two clusters of COVID-19 that have occurred at employers in Stearns County, said Renee Frauendienst, public health director for that county’s Human Services Department.
The state health department said there were four cases at the Melrose plant.
“When we see clusters, we want to do testing, and when we see testing, we find positives.” She didn’t have the number of cases for the individual plants.
Minnesota Health Department data shows a marked jump in COVID-19 cases in Stearns County over the past two days. There were 187 cases late Tuesday, up from 86 cases reported on Tuesday morning. On Monday morning, there were 31.
Pilgrim’s Pride “is not sharing any information with workers,” Goni said. His group, the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, is a St. Cloud nonprofit that works with hourly employees at the Cold Spring chicken plant, which isn’t unionized.
Also, while the company has sent workers home after taking their temperatures, those same workers were quickly back on the line, Goni said.
“The maximum they stayed at home was three days,” he said.
Goni also said the plant’s COVID-19 protections were lacking for workers in breakrooms and bathrooms.
Pilgrim’s Pride, in a statement, said the company “is working hard to provide a safe working environment for our team members and have implemented several preventive measures.”
Those include: temperature testing for all employees; physical partitions on production lines; and personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks that must be worn at all times.
Also, workers are not forced to come to work or punished for not working for health reasons, the company said.
Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the nation’s largest chicken processors, is majority-owned by Brazilian global meat giant JBS S.A. JBS also owns a big pork processing plant in Worthington, which closed April 20 after an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers there.