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Meatpacking workers speak out about conditions during pandemic

Marshalltown JBS taking steps to protect employees

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union is spreading the word about the needs of meatpacking employees in the United States.

The union held a news conference Thursday to talk about those needs and one of the workers in the conference was Margarita Heredia, a JBS employee in Marshalltown. 

“They’ve been doing a really good job,” Heredia said. “They’re doing a really good job by sanitizing everything. They’ve bleached all the hallways. They’re hand sanitizers everywhere. They check the temperature and if someone’s feeling sick they immediately go home.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, JBS has taken additional steps to ensure a safer working environment. Some of the steps include providing personal protective equipment (PPE); removing employees most vulnerable to COVID-19 and providing them with full pay and benefits; and offering free LiveHealth Online services for virtual doctor visits. There are also dividers for employees on the work line and in the cafeteria.

Heredia has worked at the JBS plant in Marshalltown for 11 years and has never experienced a pandemic like this one before. 

“It’s making us very nervous,” she said. “We go to work with fear.”

Heredia would like to see JBS do better at communicating with employees. 

“We’ve been receiving a lot of help from our union,” she said. “We are trying to do our best.”

While JBS has worked to keep the plant clean, social distancing remains a problem.

“In some cases it might be possible, but 100 percent social distancing is not possible,” Heredia said. 

Social distancing would slow production, she said.

Other workers from all around the country talked about working in meat packing plants and the struggles they’ve faced. 

‘Unprecedented threat’

The UFCW represents 80 percent of the pork and beef workers in America and a third of the poultry workers. On Sunday the union reached an agreement with JBS to increase employees’ pay by $4 an hour.

During the news conference union representatives warned of food supply issues as more plants close. 

“Which is why it’s important for our government to get active and they should’ve been active last month and not sat around,” said Mark Lauritsen, UFCW’s director of food processing, meatpacking and manufacturing division. “These workers, they need their PPE. They need testing. They need all these things. They need to be put in a status where they can get these, because if not our nation is going to suffer with higher food prices because our government is sitting on their thumbs when it comes to these essential workers.” 

The UFCW officials estimate 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing employees have died and about 5,000 meatpacking employees and 1,500 food processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19, have had to self-quarantine or are awaiting results.

On Monday, it was confirmed 34 employees at the JBS facility in Marshalltown had COVID-19. The outbreak came after an Iowa Workforce Development OSHA complaint was filed in the beginning of April by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa against JBS in Marshalltown. The complaint was filed after an employee at the JBS facility in Ottumwa tested positive for COVID-19 and another employee was in self-isolation.

The OSHA complaint stated that unsafe working conditions at the plant in Marshalltown exist in cutting, processing, break and dressing rooms. The complaint further stated JBS employs 2,400 people in Marshalltown “who work shoulder to shoulder in most of the meat cutting and processing department rooms at the facility.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Iowa hard this week with hundreds of cases reported per day. Almost 4,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 96 Iowans have died from the virus. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds has chosen not to close down meatpacking plants around the state out of fear of disrupting the country’s food supply. She is also one the few governors in the United States to not issue a stay-at-home order. 

The pandemic has caused 13 plants to close down temporarily across the United States. Some plants in Iowa, such as Tyson in Waterloo, closed due to outbreaks. National Beef in Tama shut down after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, but it reopened on Monday.

“The coronavirus poses an unprecedented threat and challenge to the workers across this industry,” Lauritsen said. “Never in my 30 years have workers faced anywhere close to the risk they’re currently facing in the plants across the country.” 

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Contact Thomas Nelson at tnelson@timesrepublican.com

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