GRAND ISLAND — The head of the union representing JBS workers says that while the safety measures put in place could have come earlier, they seem to be making a difference.
But workers at the Grand Island JBS plant are still “scared” and “tense,” said Eric Reeder, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293.
While Reeder thinks that JBS executives in Grand Island “were a little late to the game, maybe a little behind the curve,” he is getting “some positive feedback from employees” about the improvements, which include dividers, separation, extra cleaning and personal protective equipment. It looks to Reeder that “it’s gotten significantly better, as far as the safety protocols.”
In addition to other processing plants, the union local represents all JBS employees in Grand Island and Omaha, whether they’re members of the union or not. Reeder said he’s been in contact with the JBS Grand Island plant manager “quite a bit.”
As in “pretty much all of our plants,” the workers are scared mainly “because you don’t know whether you’re working next to somebody that’s sick or not,” Reeder said.
COVID-19 is different from illnesses we’ve had before “because you can be asymptomatic for several days or a week and infect a lot of people. That’s nerve-wracking for people. And when you work side-by-side with people, or you’re in crowded conditions, that’s very difficult, even with masks to control the spread,” he said.
An employee of the JBS Grand Island plant also told The Independent this week that she is scared to go back to work and a lot of other people “are scared, too.”
Nikki Richardson, who handles corporate communication for JBS USA, was asked whether the Grand Island plant has reduced production because of the coronavirus.
“JBS Grand Island has experienced reduced production due to increased absenteeism at the facility, but it remains open and operational with attendance improving,” Richardson wrote in response.
She was also asked about possible fear among the workers.
“We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe,” Richardson wrote. “The health and safety of our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority. We recognize that many people feel anxious as we all face the coronavirus challenge together. We are a proud member of the Grand Island community, and we will continue working hard to support our team members and our community.”
This week’s executive order from President Trump requires meat processing plants to stay open, but it doesn’t set clear safety guidelines or make the safety guidelines that were in place mandatory, Reeder said. Those recommendations include safe distancing and protective gear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the guidelines April 26 for meatpacking and poultry workers and employees. A statement from the national office of the United Food and Commercial Workers union says those guidelines are a step in the right direction but the organization requests that governors enforce those guidelines and issue additional protective measures.
Now, Reeder said, a situation exists in which workers are told they must come to work and “the plants may or may not follow the guidelines to the letter.”
The situation will produce “a lot more fear,” Reeder said. If plants don’t follow guidelines, larger numbers of people will get sick “and you’re going to end up with the plant closures anyway because three-fourths of your workforce is going to be out.”
Throughout the meatpacking industry, Reeder said, it’s imperative that governors and other government officials make the CDC safety guidelines mandatory and enforceable. Across the industry, a hodgepodge of policies exists regarding the quality and quantity of personal protective equipment, distancing and “whether you’re getting paid or not if you’re positive,” he said.
The employee of JBS in Grand Island, who has not been working for five weeks, says she’s been receiving short-term disability only because she was classified as being at high risk. She has asthma.
She said that until recently JBS wouldn’t send people to be tested unless they had a fever.
But a man who worked on the kill floor recently died after being sent to the hospital, she said. Now any employee who wants to be tested is being done so, she said.
The JBS employees in Grand Island would like to see the plant shut down to make sure they’re not sick, she said. Temporary closure would help those who are recuperating and let others know they can go back to work.
Last month, the UFCW and JBS agreed to a $4-per-hour increase in wage through May. That was in addition to a $600 bonus. As part of the agreement, JBS agreed to increased safety steps.
The $4 raise is “not going to help the fear,” but it does help morale somewhat, Reeder said. The pay raise will also help make up the income gap for households that have an extra adult home because of the virus, and perhaps hasn’t been able to get unemployment benefits.
The Omaha JBS plant has 1,000 workers. Reeder believes the mood in Grand Island “has probably gotten a little bit better because they’ve had the cases in the plant longer.” Employees are “kind of getting through some of that,” and the Grand Island executives are trying “to kind of get ahead of it a little bit.” But the Omaha JBS plant recently had its first two cases, so the plant is “just starting that uphill battle of dealing with the fear and the unknown for the workers.”
Reeder would like to see plants put some distance between employees and cut the line speed down. In that arrangement, employees wouldn’t be working shoulder-to-shoulder.
There are “plenty of high-risk people in these plants,” Reeder said.
He’s not saying his idea is the perfect solution, but it would help at packing plants that are having difficulty. Getting high-risk people out of the plants and distancing employees would help a little bit until they get control of the virus.
A letter from the UFCW to governors nationwide says that “plants must reconfigure the workplace to achieve physical distancing of at least 6 feet, between workers, both on the production floor and off. Barriers, such as plexiglass barriers, should be used only to reinforce the 6 feet distancing, not as a substitute. CDC/OSHA does not make this statement, but this type of distancing may require the speed of the line to be reduced, in order to achieve a reduction or minimization in the spread of the virus.”
The letter also says that all workers on the production floor “should be provided with N-95 respirators, which will provide the level of protection needed to protect workers from inhaling virus particles.”
The letter also calls on plants to provide mandatory paid quarantine.
“Should a positive case of COVID-19 be identified in the workplace, those in close contact with the infected individual should be identified as well and paid to stay home for the full two weeks. This would ensure more workers are not infected, or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.” the letter states.