COVID-19 confirmed at SL Tyson

Tuesday, May 5, 2020
An image from inside the Tyson Foods plant in Storm Lake. Mandating and provided face coverings, workstation dividers, additional break room space and additional cleaning are being employed.
Photo courtesy Tyson Foods

King, Scholten collide on president's order to keep plants open

President Donald Trump announced last week that he would sign an executive order to keep meat processing plants operating, to stave off a potential shortage of pork, beef and poultry on supermarket shelves due to Coronavirus.

The Defense Protection Act is being used to classify meat as critical work. Tyson and Smithfield Foods have idled operations at major pork plants due to outbreaks. The Storm Lake Tyson plants, which comprise over 3,000 local jobs, have not suspended operations.

"We have confirmed cases of team members at some of our U.S. locations, including Storm Lake. Since this is an ever-changing situation, we are not disclosing the number of confirmed cases associated with a plant," Tyson spokesperson Liv Crofton said.

As of 10 a.m Monday, Buena Vista County had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, among 242 people who have been tested. Three of the 15 patients have recovered.

"We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people in our community and across the country,” Croften told the Pilot-Tribune.

"We understand that everyone — including our team members — is anxious during this challenging time. We believe information is the best tool for fighting the virus and so, we're working to keep our team members informed and are also encouraging them to tell us what they're experiencing, so we support them in the best possible way."

On Tuesday, deputy director Sarah Reisetter of the Iowa Department of Public Health listed five businesses that were required to report that at least 10% of their workforce tested positive for COVID-19. Four out of the five facilities are meatpacking plants, including Tyson locations in Columbus Junction, Perry and Waterloo. Iowa Premium National Beef in Tama and TPI Composites in Newton rounded out the list of five.

"When we learn an employee has experienced symptoms and tested positive, they remain on sick leave until they are released by health officials to return to work," Croften said. "We also affirmatively notify anyone who has been in close contact with the positive team member,” the Tyson spokesperson said.

Tyson announced Wednesday, May 1, that it would temporarily close its Dakota City, Nebraska, beef plant to allow for a deep cleaning following an employee screening for COVID-19, with employees continuing to be paid. It has not yet been determined if such a short shutdown could be possible for either Storm Lake plant, Crofton said.

Pork plants in Waterloo, Perry and Logansport, Indiana, and a beef plant in Washington have been voluntarily idled by Tyson.

Tyson Foods announced Wednesday that it will double bonuses for front-line workers at plants including Storm Lake's, increase short-term disability coverage and implement additional health screening measures.

The company is paying $120 million in "thank you bonuses" for 116,000 workers. Bonuses depend on attendance, but those not working due to illness or lost childcare will qualify. Short-term disability will increase to 90 percent of normal pay through June.

Screening that has been based on temperature checks will expand to coughing and shortness of breath. Designated monitors at each plant will enforce social distancing. Company-provided surgical-level face coverings will be required.

As of April 27 there have been at least 4,135 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 75 plants in 25 states and at least 18 reported worker deaths, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. About a quarter of the country's U.S. pork production and 10% of its beef output has now been shuttered, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers, the union that represents many meatpacking workers.

Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson, in recent advertising, warned, "the food supply chain is breaking."

"As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain," he said. "As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed."

"Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated," the chairman said.

Congressman Steve King applauded Trump's action to require meat plants to keep operating, saying he has been calling for such a mandate.

King said he never thought he would see healthy, market-ready hogs being destroyed in the U.S., because too many plants are closed and workers are sick to process them.

"I would not have been able to contemplate it even a month ago," he said in a Cherokee radio interview this week.

The congressman estimates that as of Tuesday, April 30, as many as 188,000 head of hogs a day were backed up and couldn't be slaughtered. The number of hogs expected to be destroyed, if placed end to end on an interstate, would stretch from Minneapolis to Dallas, King said.

"It's what we have called the unthinkable," he said. "The producers don’t want to bury their product."

The Congressman said closed plants need to reopen, with employees told that they are front-line workers similar to those in heath care. With protective equipment and the cleanest work environment possible, they should come to work when called to work, King said.

"We must keep our food supply chain strong," he said.

King says he feels the president has the authority to require plants open. And while King said he has had some reasons to not be particularly happy with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, he supports her move to begin reopening 77 of the state's 99 counties — which includes Buena Vista and all surrounding counties, despite an outbreak in the Sioux City area. King also supports the state's announcement that those who refuse to come back to work be denied continued unemployment benefits.

J.D. Scholten, the Democrat candidate for Iowa's 4th congressional district, slammed Trump's decision to order meat-processing plants to stay open, citing what he says are "great risks to worker safety" and pressure on farmers.

"More than 6,500 meatpacking workers have been affected by COVID-19, which has already killed nearly 60,000 Americans. In fact, the top five locations in the country with the highest daily growth rate of cases, including my hometown of Sioux City, are all linked to outbreaks at meatpacking plants," Scholten said. "Ordering these meatpacking plants to stay open not only is a willing sacrifice of these workers, but also of the surrounding communities — all to pad the profits of multinational corporations like Tyson Foods and JBS."

Scholten wants to enforce antitrust laws to increase competition and prevent "massive consolidation of packers," and to investigate price fixing. He said that last week, packers were getting over $100 more than livestock producers on boxed beef.

"We should also invest in and expand our local and regional food systems… to connect folks with food that is locally grown, reducing impacts to our environment and infrastructure while benefiting local farmers and communities," he said.

Scholten was critical of Tyson.

"Earlier this week, the CEO of Tyson Foods declared that the 'food supply is breaking.' He failed to mention that our food and agriculture systems have long been broken and that his company has greatly contributed," he said. "Decades of prioritizing efficiency and corporate profits over resiliency and fairness has made our food system unfair, unsustainable and unstable. This trend couldn’t be more clear through policies like 'get big or get off the farm,' corporate consolidation, and the rise of Dollar Generals undercutting our independent small grocers."

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