WATERLOO — The country’s largest meatpacking union warned of nationwide meat shortages in the coming weeks and months if state and federal officials didn’t provide adequate protection equipment and institute widespread testing for coronavirus in food processing plants around the United States.
Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in food and retail, said on a press call Thursday that more than a dozen of their members had died from COVID-19 and another 5,000 had been infected or come into contact with an infected person.
Another 24,500 workers were affected by a plant shutdown.
“Our nation’s workers and our nation’s food supply are under direct threat from this virus,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “In every state they’ve been deemed essential workers, but they haven’t been given the essential protection they so desperately need.”
The union said 13 plants have shut down since the pandemic hit U.S. shores — including Tyson pork plants in Waterloo and Columbus Juction and the National Beef plant in Tama County — and warned more would follow if the federal government and state governors didn’t prioritize food processing workers for PPE and begin testing them en masse.
Mark Lauritsen, UFCW vice president for meatpacking, said the union also was working to halt U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers on line speeds at poultry plants, saying adding workers and speeding up the line was an “increase(d) opportunity for COVID-19 to spread” and could increase worker injuries, too.
“Never in my 30 years have workers faced anything close to what workers are facing today,” he said. “Unless we do something, more plants will close. ... The nation’s food supply is in jeopardy.”
Margarita Heredia, a worker at the JBS pork processing plant in Marshalltown, said the union and JBS agreed to checking temperatures at the door, sanitizing “everything,” using dividers to separate workers who can’t practice social distancing and even increasing workers’ pay.
Nonetheless, she said, she still feels anxiety about contracting coronavirus at work.
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“It’s making us very nervous because we go to work with fear,” Heredia said. “We are trying to do our best.”
Lauritsen said an adequate supply of PPE and widespread testing and quarantine measures need to be implemented nationwide, noting the union had sent a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force saying as much.
“There’s stuff that the government can do to ensure that these workers are safe, and they need to do it yesterday,” Lauritsen said, noting UCFW wouldn’t advocate for plant shutdowns unless necessary.
Barring the federal government doing anything, he said states still had the power and called out Iowa’s governor in particular for not identifying meatpacking workers as “front-line workers.”
“Gov. (Kim) Reynolds in Iowa has yet to make that move, and then they don’t even issue stay-at-home orders,” Lauritsen said. “There’s a lot our governors can do, and they need to get active.”
Separately on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said he has asked Vice President Mike Pence for help addressing meatpacking outbreaks.
“I’m particularly worried about the health and safety of meatpacking employees,” Grassley said. “During my call with the vice president, I asked for a surge of tests to address our meatpacking outbreaks. I think I had a positive response from him.
“To the extent possible, we want to keep these facilities open to limit the supply chain disruption for farmers and consumers,” he added. “And I know that Vice President Pence is working with Governor Reynolds to ensure this happens quickly.”
James Q. Lynch of the Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
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