MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa – Coronavirus has sickened dozens of workers at the JBS pork plant here, a slaughterhouse the same size as the JBS plant in Worthington, Minn., that’s been idle for a week.
Hundreds of employees have stopped showing up. But unlike in Worthington, work at the Marshalltown plant persists.
The contrast highlights the nation’s patchwork approach to meatpacking plants, worker safety and protecting the meat supply even as President Donald Trump said Tuesday he would order meat processors to stay open.
One worker starting his shift Monday afternoon in Marshalltown said the plant should be idled for a deep clean and to give JBS a chance to test all employees for the virus.
“I don’t know, but they need to!” said the 47-year-old man who has worked at the plant for four years and declined to give his full name. “A lot of people want to take care of their families right now. I have to work because I live alone and need to pay my bills.”
Nang Tai Mai, whose husband works at the plant, said about 1,000 workers are not reporting for their shifts. A spokesman for the 2,400-worker plant confirmed that “absenteeism is increasing.”
JBS USA, the American branch of the Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS S.A., has closed and since reopened a beef plant in Greeley, Colo., and is offering testing to symptomatic employees there.
A spokesman said workers in Marshalltown are not being tested, “though we will consider any and all options to promote the health and safety of our workforce.”
Plants like the JBS facility are fast-moving production lines that typically kill, disassemble and package 21,000 hogs a day. Employees congregate in crowds that are unusually large for a U.S. industrial setting, and they work elbow-to-elbow.
Such plants have seen a rash of coronavirus outbreaks, closures and rampant absenteeism that’s slowing production at plants that remain open.
In Cold Spring, Minn., late Monday night, workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken slaughterhouse protested the company’s handling of COVID-19.
Mohamed Goni, a staff organizer at the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, said he was at the protest and more than 100 workers walked off the job over what they see as the company’s lack of transparency about the disease’s spread and other COVID-19 shortcomings.
Pilgrim’s Pride said in a statement that about 20 people, including some community activists, protested and that production wasn’t affected. The company says it has taken “extensive measures” to protect the plant’s more than 1,100 workers but declined to say if anyone has tested positive for the virus.
The Minnesota Department of Health said Tuesday that 17 workers at the plant have tested positive.
“The company is not sharing any information with workers,” Goni said, and while the plant has sent workers home after taking their temperatures, those same workers were quickly back on the line. “The maximum they stayed at home was three days.”
Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the nation’s largest chicken processors, is majority-owned by JBS S.A., the company that owns the pork plants in Worthington and Marshalltown.
In Marshalltown, steady streams of employees in masks trudged through the main entrance to JBS Pork on Monday afternoon, passing security guards with face shields and entering a shed to have their temperatures taken.
Fifty languages are spoken at the plant, which has large numbers of Latino, Sudanese and Southeast Asian workers.
“These are people with high work ethic, who want to take care of their families, so this is a tough time for them,” said Sue Cahill, the council member for that part of town, who is recovering from COVID-19 herself. “They want to be working, yet they know that they deserve to be safe.”
The northeast corner of Marshalltown was stripped of its trees by a tornado in 2018, and the white packing plant rises above the neighborhood’s 1½-half story houses, radiating the stink of hog manure from its slaughterhouse and wastewater lagoons.
Juan Ventura has lived next to the meatpacking plant for 28 years and worked there for 13. His brother and nephew work there now, and he said the workforce is either sick or afraid of getting sick.
“People are not working anymore,” Ventura said. “They’re stopping.”
JBS is asking employees to work more hours to make up for the staff shortage, Ventura said.
One of Ventura’s friends is so sick he was taken to the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, Ventura said. One of the women in his brother’s household works at a nursing home in the area, where there has been a case of coronavirus.
She has to keep paying off her car, he said, so she can’t stop working.
Nang Tai Mai said use of masks and sanitation has been too lax on the production lines when supervisors aren’t watching, and the company hasn’t made enough accommodation for infected workers who have nowhere to go but back home to their families when they get sick.
“Most of our Burmese communities who work at JBS are scared to go to work, including my husband,” she said.
Like most counties with a major meatpacking plant in the Midwest, Marshall County, Iowa, is a virus hot spot. It has 434 cases — 1,077 cases per 100,000 residents — and no deaths.
As of late Tuesday, Nobles County in Minnesota had 697 cases of COVID-19, including 239 people who worked at the JBS plant, according to the state Health Department.
That gives Nobles County, where the Worthington plant is idled, an infection rate nine times greater than the far more populous Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.
Iowa has taken a less restrictive approach than Minnesota to closing businesses. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week eased constraints on retailers, malls and fitness centers in most of the state, though not in Marshalltown and other places with large numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Mayor Joel Greer said he does not know the number of cases at the plant in Marshalltown, a town of 26,000. Last week 34 cases were confirmed, but Greer said he suspects the number is higher now.
“I personally hope they can stay open,” Greer said Tuesday. “The people that work at the plant here need the income. The world needs the food.”
Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.