Threat of Sick Workers at U.S. Meat Plants Forces Policy Changes


    Companies start to ease some attendance rules amid outbreak

    It will be a ‘miracle’ if no plants impacted, one expert says


By Deena Shanker and Lydia Mulvany, Bloomberg

March 20, 2020


In shelter-in-place America, people have been filling their freezers full of meat just in case. Meanwhile, at the plants where the meat is packed, the big question is: What happens if the workers start getting sick?


The potential for a coronavirus-related disruption is raising difficult questions for those who track an industry that’s suddenly of critical importance to the nation’s well-being. Some warn that meat packers should prepare for the inevitable.


“I am extremely doubtful that we can get through the next few weeks without any packing plant Covid-19 disruptions,” said David Kruse, president of CommStock Investments in Royal, Iowa. He compared the situation to a hurricane making landfall that upends plant operations. “It will be a miracle if all plants run un-impacted.”


The idea of a sick worker arriving in a plant and infecting other workers is even pushing some in the industry, known to be particularly grueling, to alter longstanding policies. It’s a work environment where sick leave is rare and even bathroom breaks are considered a perk.


Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, is still not offering paid sick days, but says it is “eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness.” Perdue Farms, which does offer up to four weeks of paid time off for hourly plant workers, is encouraging its workers to visit its wellness centers, contact their doctors and use accrued time if they are ill. It said it is also reassessing policies to respond to the pandemic.


Sanderson Farms, meanwhile, recently stated that personnel with coronavirus symptoms will be placed on two week’s paid sick leave. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. didn’t provide comment, while its parent company, JBS SA is considering paid time off at beef plants in Brazil.


“It’s up to each company to determine appropriate employment packages, including leave policies, in compliance with all applicable laws,” said Tom Super, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council. “It’s in the company’s, and everyone’s, best interest to not have sick employees show up for work.”


Worker Shortage


Meat processors have struggled to find and keep workers in a tight labor market as U.S. unemployment figures have shrunk to historic lows. The jobs are physically demanding, highly repetitive and can be extremely dangerous, making them even harder to fill. In March, a contract worker at a Tyson plant in Alabama was decapitated while cleaning a piece of equipment.


The worker shortage has been exacerbated by the Trump Administration’s tougher stance on immigration, which has specifically impacted meatpacking. Plants have been the target of raids, since immigrants make up a significant percentage of the meat processing industry’s workforce...


Changing Landscape


Companies appear to be reviewing their calculations in light of coronavirus...


Labor Concern ...


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