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How Can Meatpacking Plants Adapt To The Threat Of COVID-19?

May 9, 2020
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Meat processing plants have become coronavirus hot spots. Some that have been shut down because of infected employees are now reopening because of an executive order. But ensuring enough social distance between workers is a challenge, as Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Meatpacking plants serve one role - to turn a steady stream of cattle, hogs and chickens into the cuts of meat that consumers want. Wielding knives and bone saws, workers line fast-moving conveyor belts that wind through these plants. In some poultry facilities, workers are expected to process up to 175 chickens every minute.

UNIDENTIFIED MEATPACKER: (Through interpreter) These plants were built 20, 30, even 50 years ago. The characteristics of the workspaces were not designed having in mind an emergency like the one we're living in now.

RUNYON: That's a 45-year-old worker at the beef plant in Grand Island, Neb. We're withholding his name because he fears losing his job. In late April, several people who worked near him tested positive for COVID-19. One died. And he was instructed to quarantine at home. The plant's owner, who is JBS USA, refused to shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED MEATPACKER: (Through interpreter) They only care about cows and money. They don't care about the worker. They don't care about the health of the worker.

RUNYON: In written statements, JBS officials deny that characterization, stressing that the company is committed to worker safety. But many meat workers say it's nearly impossible to socially distance in a meatpacking plant. Thousands of people are in the building at one time, and workers say hand sanitizer and soap dispensers are often empty. Even before the pandemic, the Nebraska worker worried about accidentally cutting the person next to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MEATPACKER: (Through interpreter) If they have six people working in that area, they should eliminate three for now. Why? If you eliminate the person next to me, you make more space.

DULCE CASTENEDA: I think that the job itself is already stressful and backbreaking and gruesome, and this just added a whole lot more pressure.

RUNYON: Dulce Casteneda's (ph) father works 90 miles from Grand Island in the Smithfield pork plant in Crete, Neb. She helped organize rallies outside that plant to pressure the company to change its safety protocols.

CASTENEDA: It'd be difficult, and it would require an investment. But I think it can be done to protect the workers.

RUNYON: Meatpacking companies say they are investing in new safety measures. Jarrod Gillig is in charge of operations for Cargill's meat plants.

JARROD GILLIG: We've got cubicles built on our cafeteria tables, so we don't have folks just sitting right next to each other. I mean, so that obviously is a significant change.

RUNYON: Gillig says that workers are only part of the puzzle. His company also has to consider all the cattle to be slaughtered and butchered lining up outside the plant.

GILLIG: As we balance that with the help of our team and then, obviously, the draw in the demand from a customer standpoint, it - quite frankly, it's more of a balance of that.

RUNYON: Kim Cordova says that balance is off. She's a union official with the United Food and Commercial Workers. She says companies can't just install hand sanitizer stations and plastic dividers and call it a day.

KIM CORDOVA: They may have to do some reconstruction to widen or spread those lines out.

RUNYON: The easiest way to do that might be to slow the line down, but the speed of conveyor lines is a hot topic. Cordova says the latest recommendations from the CDC and OSHA don't specify how fast lines should run during the pandemic.

CORDOVA: They have not given clear guidance on how fast those chain speeds should go. And, in fact, in the pork industry, President Trump has deregulated a lot of these agencies, and they've also allowed those chain speeds to go faster.

RUNYON: On Friday, the USDA announced that 14 plants in states that shut down in recent weeks are set to resume operations. That comes as nearly 50 workers nationwide have died from COVID-19.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.