A new report released May 1 by the CDC says more than 4,193 workers in meat processing and packing facilities across the United States have contracted the novel coronavirus. The workers are spread across 115 plants which employ a collective 130,000 workers. 19 different states reported cases. In its report, the CDC recommended that crowded establishments like factories, prisons, and long-term care facilities establish physical distancing, hand hygiene, and medical leave policies in order to preserve critical functions.
The CDC was alerted in early April about cases in “several meat and poultry processing facilities,” and the information in the report was reported to the CDC between April 9 and April 27. 4,913 workers, roughly 3%, were diagnosed with COVID-19. The CDC also received reports of 20 deaths to the virus. The state in the report with the most alarming figures was South Dakota: Workers in 2 plants there accounted for 794 cases —17.3% of the plant’s workers. On April 12, Smithfield Foods announced they would close their massive pork production facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after the governor and mayor wrote the company about the "alarming" number of South Dakota COVID-19 cases tied to the factory. At the time, more than 50% of COVID-19 cases in the state were among workers at the Sioux Falls plant.
According to the report, certain policies employment policies might make transmission of the virus more likely. “Among workers, socioeconomic challenges might contribute to working while feeling ill, particularly if there are management practices such as bonuses that incentivize attendance.”
In a federal lawsuit filed against Smithfield Foods, Inc., a worker’s group alleged that Smithfield’s Milan, Missouri plant failed to provide adequate protective equipment for workers and incentivized workers to continue coming to work by offering a $500 bonus for employees who didn’t miss a shift between April 1 and May 1, including for sick leave. In a statement, a Smithfield Foods representative said the suit was “without factual or legal merit,” and that “the company has been explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick and that they will be paid.”
The three largest meat producers in the country, Smithfield Foods, Tyson, and JBS USA have all been forced to close plants due to the coronavirus or related workforce problems. JBS slowed production at one plant after a group of between 800 and 1,000 employees stayed home in March, according to the local United Food and Commercial Workers chief. Tyson Foods suspended production at a plant in Waterloo, Iowa after reducing production to cope with absent workers.
The report lands two days after President Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to require meat and poultry producers to remain open despite the viral threat. In a statement, the President said plant closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” In a series of full-page ads in prominent national newspapers that predated the order, Tyson Foods CEO John H. Tyson made a similar claim. “The food supply chain is breaking,” he wrote.