Nearly two weeks after President Donald Trump proclaimed that meat processors should remain open, thousands of U.S. meatpacking workers are still not being tested for the coronavirus.
Pork, beef and poultry laborers have been asked to return to fast-moving, shoulder-to-shoulder meat-cutting lines with no clear idea of who does or does not carry the virus. Across the country, meat factories have been the scenes of the largest outbreaks in the country.
“It really is a death march going into those facilities until workers can be tested,” said Joe Enriquez Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group that’s communicating with meatpacking workers in Iowa and fighting for their protection.
“We can’t solve this until everyone is tested,” he said. “That’s the clear thing that needs to happen, and it’s not happening.”
The only guidance from the federal government has been that meat processors should “consider” tests. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote a letter to governors last week urging that meat plants remain open, but he didn’t mention testing workers.
That’s left meat processors with no obligation to test for COVID-19, even as many thousands of workers have been infected and the death toll among and around them is rising. In Minnesota, the spouse of a worker at a Jennie-O turkey plant in Melrose died last week.
Meat processors, who were quick to applaud the president’s order that they stay open, continue to shutter plants because of outbreaks. Last week, at least 10,000 hogs a day were being euthanized in Minnesota because of a lack of slaughterhouse capacity.
Some of the plants that remain open are running at reduced capacity because of absenteeism. Workers are afraid to go to work.
On her own
Jomari de Jesus is a Honduran asylum-seeker and mother of two who works for a contractor that cleans a Jennie-O turkey processing plant in Willmar.
For $14 an hour, seven hours a day, five days a week, de Jesus is one of 105 cleaning workers in her department. Her responsibility is to sanitize an area the size of a small apartment, including machines that process turkeys into ground meat.
She started feeling ill on April 11. “I felt like I was smelling cigarette smoke and I don’t smoke,” she said.
A stomachache, diarrhea, headaches, fever and cough followed. She thought maybe it was all caused by the cleaning chemicals. Then on April 21, one of her co-workers fainted and was taken away in an ambulance.
“I told my supervisor after the woman fainted that I wanted to go home because we were scared we might be sick too. He approved that we could go home but if we didn’t show any signs of illness to come back to work,” de Jesus said. “He did not encourage us to go to the doctor. He said we were just scared.”
She hasn’t worked since, and on her own initiative, de Jesus called the hospital, explained her symptoms and was tested for COVID-19 on April 24. Three days later, she learned she was positive and went into quarantine.
De Jesus said she has not been paid by her employer while she was isolated at home and caring for her two children. She does not have health insurance, she said, and paid $115 from her own pocket for the coronavirus test.
Austin-based Hormel Foods, which owns the Jennie-O plant in Willmar, has been testing employees, but de Jesus isn’t sure what the policy is for her employer, the cleaning company.
“I think it should be obligatory to be tested,” she said.
Hormel “encourages” returning employees to get tested for COVID-19, and as testing availability has increased, “we have been able to move more swiftly to encourage team members to get tested,” the company said in a statement to the Star Tribune.
The food company decided about a week ago to conduct mass testing at its turkey plants in Willmar and Melrose for all employees and third-party contractors who regularly work at the factories.
“Our company covered the cost,” a Hormel spokesman said.
JBS ‘reluctant to test’
Two-thirds of the workers at the JBS plant in Worthington were tested when the facility was idled two weeks ago, but that was at Gov. Tim Walz’s insistence.
“The governor wanted everyone in the plant to be tested,” said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health. “JBS was reluctant to test everyone. They had reservations.”
The Health Department ended up testing about 1,400 of the plant’s 2,200 workers, coordinating with local public health authorities and Sanford Health. Minnesota taxpayers will foot the bill.
Systematic testing of employees has not occurred at a similarly sized JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, where at least dozens of workers have fallen ill from the virus. Ken Lyons, chairman of the Marshall County Board of Health, said last week he has not known the case count at the plant for three weeks.
JBS, which has put in place a long list of new safety measures in Worthington, did not respond to the Star Tribune’s questions about coronavirus testing.
Testing is “a point in time,” said Ehresmann, of the state Health Department. “All a negative test means is that today — at this point — you don’t have evidence of COVID-19.”
Employers must conduct continuous, rigorous screening of their workers in addition to giving them continued access to testing, she said.
The other companies with dominant meatpacking presence in the Upper Midwest are Smithfield and Tyson, and their testing of employees varies by location.
“I am not sure who has been testing and who has not, nor how they have been doing the testing,” said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group for meatpackers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has called for daily testing of meatpacking workers, but that is some way off. Many plants are not testing workers at all.
Smithfield is trying to reopen its Sioux Falls, S.D., pork plant where more than 800 workers have tested positive, but any new testing is “on a voluntary basis,” the company said in a statement. The state of South Dakota is paying for the tests.
A Smithfield plant in Denison, Iowa, has been the scene of an outbreak and is running at reduced capacity because of absenteeism.
The mayor of Denison, Pamela Soseman, said last week that Smithfield “did not respond” when she asked the company to request rapid test kits from the state.
But on Friday afternoon she spoke with representatives from the company, and Smithfield workers are now being encouraged to sign up for testing at a drive-through site in town. Testing is not mandatory.
Smithfield said Friday in a statement to the Star Tribune that it has worked with the state of Iowa and local public health authorities “to make testing available for free to all Denison employees” of the company.
Tyson Foods, which has suffered outbreaks at several plants in Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere, did not respond to a request for comment.
Local news reports indicate workers are being tested in Dakota City, Neb., where a Tyson beef plant has been shut down, but not in Independence, Iowa, where Tyson has a dog-treats factory with an outbreak.
A spokeswoman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents thousands of poultry-processing workers in the southeastern United States, said testing is not occurring “to our knowledge” at any of the plants where it represents workers. A least three workers have died from COVID-19 at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Ga., where the union represents 2,000 workers.
The USDA has given processors little instruction for reopening a plant that has been idled, including testing guidelines.
“The information we have gotten from the USDA has been very limited,” said Thom Petersen, Minnesota’s agriculture commissioner. “It has been very general — things we are already doing in Minnesota.”
Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, has told meat and poultry processors to use an interim guidance for the industry published last month by the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
That document’s only reference to testing says, “Facilities should consider the appropriate role for testing and workplace contact tracing of COVID-19-positive workers in a worksite risk assessment.”
The USDA did not respond to the Star Tribune’s questions about testing at meatpacking plants.