Gov. Pete Ricketts and President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed to keep meat processing plants open in order to ensure that grocery stores remain stocked, even as workers at a pork slaughterhouse in Crete briefly walked off the job to protest the plant’s continued operation.
Trump signed an executive order requiring plants to stay open in an effort to stave off a shortage of meat because of coronavirus infections among packinghouse workers.
The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure. But advocates for worker safety say the order takes away the one tool local governments and worker representatives have to force plants to operate more safely: the threat of closure.
The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a workplace safety advocacy group, said the order could jeopardize workers.
“Essential workplaces should never be required to stay open unless they are safe — for the sake of workers on site, and to prevent the spread of a deadly disease to co-workers, families and the public at large,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the council’s co-executive director.
Ricketts said keeping the plants open requires a committed effort at the local level because it means working with plant officials, the community and others to sort through social distancing and other issues. Nebraska, for example, has been tapping the expertise of infectious disease specialists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to give pointers on infection control within the plants.
“You have to work very hard,” Ricketts said. “If the president has a plan to be able to do it, we’re happy to work with him. If we can get additional resources to do that, I’m all ears on how to make that happen.”
The order comes after industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days after workers at major facilities tested positive for the virus.
Communities with meatpacking plants across Nebraska and the country have emerged as coronavirus hot spots. In Nebraska, the communities have the state’s highest rates for infections. Workers have tested positive at beef, chicken and pork plants in areas such as Omaha, Fremont, Grand Island, Lexington, Hastings, Dakota City and Madison.
Hall County, home of the JBS beef plant in Grand Island, leads Nebraska with 933 known cases of the virus.
More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus, including two of the nation’s largest, one in Iowa and one in South Dakota. Others have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” Trump’s order states.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said Tuesday that 20 food-processing and meatpacking union workers in the United States have died of the virus. An estimated 6,500 are sick or have been exposed while working near someone who tested positive, the union says.
A senior White House official said the administration was working to prevent a situation in which a majority of processing plants shut down for a period of time, which could lead to an 80% drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets.
Some economists, though, have said there should be enough meat in cold storage to prevent widespread shortages, but customers may not see the same supply and variety in the meat case.
Trump on Tuesday told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply” but that supply chains had hit what he called a “roadblock.”
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said in a tweet Tuesday evening that Iowa’s ag economy, including its packing plants, are critical to the state and to feeding the country and world.
“Keeping it running during #COVID19 means we need to first and foremost be keeping our workers safe and healthy,” Axne tweeted. “Any requirement — from an employer or @POTUS himself — for employees to keep coming to work needs to be accompanied by ironclad answers on what protections will be in place — including PPE, routine testing and inspections, & social distancing.”
In Crete, an estimated 50 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant engaged in a walkout around noon after it was announced that the plant would reverse course and stay open.
State and local officials had been told Monday that the plant would temporarily close this week to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak among meatpacking workers.
“Our Crete, Nebraska, facility remains operational,” a company spokesman said Tuesday. “The company will make an announcement if there are material changes to its operations.”
The plant, roughly 25 miles southwest of Lincoln, employs about 2,000 people. At least 48 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents the Crete workers, said the protest wasn’t sanctioned by the union. The leaders of the walkout went back inside and sat down to talk with managers, he said.
“The main thing is they’re scared,” he said. “Yesterday, they were told, ‘Smithfield was worried about you guys so we’re going to shut down and do some deep cleaning.’ And then when they changed it today, people kind of freaked out, thinking ‘profits in front of people.’”
Reeder said plant managers seemed sympathetic to their concerns. He’s now hearing that the plant will shift to a reduced production schedule — people might work in the morning but be let out before noon.
At his daily press briefing Tuesday, Ricketts said he wasn’t involved in any decisions involving the Crete plant.
Ricketts said Smithfield executives called his office Monday morning to say they were planning to shut down the plant and then called back later in the day to say it would stay open.
“We didn’t tell them to close, we didn’t tell them to open,” Ricketts said.
But the governor said one thing’s for sure: He’d never ask that food processing plants shut down. They’re too important for food security and to keep the nation’s food chain running, he said.
“It’s who feeds us; it’s who feeds the nation,” he said.
The state is working with meat processors to expand testing for workers, including in Crete and Dakota County, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska. There is a massive Tyson beef plant in Dakota City that employs more than 4,000 people.
Ricketts said he would not endorse “Meatless May” or any other similar initiatives.
“I cannot support that in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Meat is part of a healthy diet.”
Two of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants are currently closed. Meat processing giant Tyson Foods suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa. And Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60% of all pork processed in the country.
In Crete, Reeder said the plant is sending home sick workers but has to do a better job of identifying and isolating their co-workers next to and across from them on the production line. Workers who cut and package meat work in close quarters, and it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to space them 6 feet apart.
“If they’re not going to find a way to distance these people, they need to do a better job of tracing and quarantining,” he said.
Smithfield representatives say the company has taken a number of steps to slow the spread of the virus, including thermal scans to identify employees with elevated temperatures; increased personal protective equipment, including face shields and masks; plastic and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms; social distancing where possible; and increased cleaning and sanitation.
Crete Mayor Dave Bauer said he understands both sides of the argument over keeping meat processing plants open. The Smithfield plant is Crete’s largest employer.
“We have to keep the citizens as safe as possible and keep it from spreading,” he said. “I also see the economics of it, the food supply and the farmers. From onions to chickens to hogs, if they don’t have a place to take them, what do they do with them?”
Tuesday, the outbreak tied to the Tyson Foods pork plant in Madison, 16 miles south of Norfolk in northeast Nebraska, had grown to 74 workers, according to the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department.
The Health Department, which covers Burt, Cuming, Madison and Stanton Counties, has counted 109 confirmed cases across those four counties, with 875 tests administered. Madison County accounts for 101 of those cases and three deaths.
World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.