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Meat industry is trying to get back to normal, but workers are still getting sick - and shortages could get worse

Sergio Rodriguez leaves UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colo., on April 18 after a battle with COVID-19 left him on a ventilator. Rodriguez, who works at the JBS Meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., stopped receiving pay when he began developing symptoms of the virus. (Photo for The Washington Post by Chet Strange)

Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the United States, has transformed its facilities across the country since legions of its workers started getting sick from the novel coronavirus. It has set up on-site medical clinics, screened employees for fevers at the beginning of their shifts, required the use of facial coverings, installed plastic dividers between stations and taken a host of other steps to slow the spread.

Despite those efforts, the number of Tyson employees with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has exploded from under 1,600 a month ago to more than 7,000 today, according to a Washington Post analysis of news reports and public records.

What has happened at Tyson - and the meat industry overall - shows how difficult getting the nation back to normal is, even in essential fields such as food processing. Meat companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars - on protective gear, paid leave, ventilation systems and more - because they were forced to shut dozens of plants that were among the top COVID-19 hot spots outside of cities.

But the industry has still experienced a surge in cases, and some of the companies say they are limited in how much they can keep workers separated from one another. A small portion of the industry's labor force has gone back to work - some workers kept away on purpose - and the nation's meat supply remains deeply strained as barbecue season gets underway.

A May report from CoBank, which specializes in serving rural America, warns meat that supplies in grocery stores could shrink as much as 35%, prices could spike 20% and the impact could become even "more acute later this year" as the effects on the U.S. agriculture supply chain are felt.

Grocery stores have been able to partially meet consumer demand thanks to meat already in the supply chain in March, when the pandemic broke out, but the report said those supplies were quickly being used up.

The prospect of long-term shortages is giving rise to an intensifying debate about whether the industry should reopen faster or safety should be prioritized, even at the cost of the nation's food supply.

With an April 28 executive order encouraging meat plants to reopen, the Trump administration has said the food supply must be weighted equally with safety. Over the past month, more than half of the 30 meat processing plants that had shuttered because of COVID-19 have reopened.

"Our objective is two equal goals," Vice President Mike Pence said in a meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican. "Number one is the safety and health of the workforce in our meat processing plants, and, two, there's strength in our food supply and getting people back to work."

But others say safety must be the paramount concern - and the industry still has a long way to go before facilities are safe again.

"Absolutely, positively, no worker's life is worth my getting a cheaper hamburger. No worker's life is worth that," former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, told Yahoo News last week.

Officials with the meat processors say they are doing whatever they can to protect workers, while trying to make sure the nation's food supply remains sound.

"The safety of our team members is paramount and we only reopen our facilities when we believe we can safely do so," said Gary Mickelson, Tyson's director of media relations.

What's clear is the industry's efforts so far, though they may have lessened the virus's spread, have not come close to stopping it. Over the past month, the number of infections tied to three of the country's biggest meat processors - Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS - has gone from just over 3,000 to more than 11,000, according to the analysis by The Post.

Throughout the entire industry, worker deaths have tripled, surging from 17 to at least 63, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which is tracking outbreaks through local news reports.

Four of the plants that reopened saw outbreaks with more than 700 positive cases, according to the Midwest Center: Tyson Foods operations in Logansport, Indiana; Perry, Iowa; Waterloo, Iowa; and a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, coronavirus cases linked to meat workers represent 18%, 20% and 29% of the states' total cases, respectively, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Many plants that have reopened are operating at reduced capacity - either due to widespread absences or to reduce the number of workers on shift to allow for social distancing. Closures have affected 45,000 workers, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the largest organization representing meatpacking workers.

COVID-19 signage at the employee entrance of JBS USA plant. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP)

JBS, the second largest meat processor in the United States, said it is paying workers who could be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 to stay at home - about 10% of its workforce.

The question over reopening, even amid safer conditions, can cause difficult choices for communities.

Meat plants are usually located in rural communities where they are among the area's largest employers. COVID-19 infection rates in communities within a 15-mile radius of meat plants are twice the national average, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The recent closures have cascaded through local economies, as farmers who supply plants are left with nowhere to take their animals. The National Pork Producers Council estimates that current plant capacities are creating backlogs of 170,000 hogs a day.

"These hogs will eventually stay on farms too long and grow too large to be accepted by harvest facilities. It is estimated that up to 10,069,000 market hogs will need to be euthanized," the pork producer group said in a recent fact sheet.

A divide over safety

Although companies have tried to get back to normal operations, union and local officials question whether they are ready.

Tyson's biggest pork plant, in Waterloo, reopened May 7 with new safety precautions and social distancing policies. "Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their loved ones and our communities," Tom Hart, the plant's manager, said in a news release.

Tyson had just finished running a national ad campaign warning, "The food supply chain is breaking."

But the Waterloo plant reopened the same day that health officials in Black Hawk County - where it is located - reported more than 1,000 employees out of 2,700 there had tested positive for the coronavirus

"Tyson did not go above and beyond," said Iowa state Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat who represents Waterloo. "They did what they already should have done." He called Tyson's handling of the outbreak "appalling."

In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastating the nation’s meatpacking communities — places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Within weeks, the outbreaks around slaughterhouses have turned into full-scale disasters. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Smith and fellow Iowa Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, a Democrat, say they suspect Trump's executive order encouraged Tyson to reopen faster, a point the company disputes. The plant shuttered April 22 after weeks of resisting calls from local officials. The lawmakers said they met with the plant's human resources director on May 1 and were told the facility was weeks away from reopening.

Four days later, they said, they were told production would resume May 7. They said there was no explanation for the new timeline.

"It really doesn't feel like our local Tyson was in this big of a hurry to reopen," Brown-Powers said. "It became a hurry for them because of the pressure they're getting from above."

Mickelson, Tyson's spokesman, said in an email to The Post that the executive order had helped Tyson by providing "clear, uniform standards" for how processing facilities should protect workers and by giving the company better access to protective gear. But he said it did not accelerate the reopening of the facility.

A federal push to reopen

When he announced the executive order on April 28, Trump initially said it would solve "liability problems" for companies and force them to stay open during the pandemic.

"Now that Trump issued that executive order, it gives plants this insurmountable feeling that they are invincible," said Kim Cordova, a local union president in Greeley, Colorado, where a JBS beef plant was shuttered in April amid a coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least seven workers.

In practice, the order was more narrow, legal experts said. It designated meat producers as critical infrastructure and ordered them to follow federal guidance developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It also enabled Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to take steps to get meat companies federal contracts and access to protective gear.

OSHA - the federal agency in charge of worker safety - has not issued enforceable guidelines for protecting employees, as it did during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, instead opting for voluntary guidance. The agency has said it plans no enforcement action so as not to overly burden companies during the pandemic.

Smithfield cited the Trump executive order in federal court, saying it meant local and state authorities no longer had any authority over meat processors. It was part of the company's defense in a Missouri lawsuit, which was filed by an unnamed employee saying Smithfield failed to protect employees by not accommodating social distancing and by discouraging sick employees from staying home.

"The president has identified state interference with meat and poultry processors as 'undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,' " Smithfield's attorneys said in court documents. "State law, whether statutory or through private lawsuits, cannot be used to regulate the subject matter covered by the EO. This task belongs exclusively to the federal government."

Judge David Gregory Kays dismissed the case 12 days later, citing the "significant steps" Smithfield had taken to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection at its plant in Milan, Missouri.

In a news release, the company praised the outcome of the case, which it said was "frivolous, full of specious allegations that were without factual or legal merit."

Less than two weeks after the case was dismissed, voluntary testing at the Milan plant revealed an outbreak at the facility, according to local news reports and the worker behind the lawsuit. She told The Post that fearful workers have been staying home, and that those who do show up for shifts are working overtime to keep up production.

"They could have listened to workers and protected the company and the people by being proactive," said David Muraskin, the worker's attorney. "Now that they've failed to do the right thing, their responsibility is to make sure they take care of their workers and pay them their wages while the company puts in place the protections that should have been there all along to protect the community."

Smithfield said the Milan plant is "operational" but declined to provide further details about absences and production capacity. The company said it would not confirm coronavirus cases "out of respect for employees' legal privacy."

Fearful employees

On April 16, the JBS beef plant in Greeley was forced to shut down after about 100 workers came down with the virus and three died. Another worker died during the closure, and four others since it reopened on April 24.

Coronavirus cases at the plant now exceed 300, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show.

"We are raising hell because the numbers continue to rise," said Cordova, the local union president. "People are scared to go to work because people keep getting sick. There are hundreds of workers who have not come back. We don't know if they have moved on, if they are on ventilators. We can't find them."

Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, said in an email that JBS USA has adopted more than $100 million in enhanced safety measures throughout its facilities, including "increased sanitation and disinfection efforts, health screening and temperature checking, team member training, physical distancing, reduced line speeds and increased availability of personal protective equipment, including face masks and face shields."

Cordova toured the Greeley plant last week and said improvements have been made on the processing side, where the beef is cut into steaks, ribs and briskets. Metal dividers have been installed between workers, and protective equipment has been placed next to workstations so employees can avoid congregating to pick up their supplies.

Still, she said, additional safety measures need to be taken to lessen the risk of infection. Workers are still crowded into halls and stairways. Due to the loud noise in the plant, workers take off their masks and lean in close to speak to supervisors.

In the area where cattle are slaughtered, Cordova said, plastic dividers between work stations have yet to be installed.

"They are on rafters, right next to one another," she said.

Richardson said the company is trying its hardest.

"We are doing the best we can to ensure social distancing in the facility, but we recognize the challenges that exist to maintain social distancing in areas where people naturally congregate," Richardson said in an email to The Post. "We have hired people to be part of an employee health team that is responsible for COVID-19 program management, compliance and auditing, including enforcing social distancing."

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The Washington Post’s Kimberly Kindy and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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