rump Administration Exploring Coronavirus Testing for U.S. Food Plant Workers
As published in the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration is weighing a plan to provide coronavirus tests and other solutions to U.S. food-processing plants, as a way to soothe workers' fears and keep the country's food system functioning through the pandemic.
The federal Covid-19 task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence this week discussed the prospect with meatpackers and food producers, according to people involved in the talks. The task force is looking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work out details of what such a plan could look like, at the agency's discretion, an administration official said. A USDA spokeswoman had no comment on details of the potential plan. But a Trump administration official confirmed the talks."They are working on a solution with the plants that not only makes the plants happy but the workers comfortable to come in," the official said. Asked if tests are part of the considerations, the official said, "100%."
Food producers are struggling as a rising number of processing-plant employees contract the coronavirus, and more stay home rather than risk catching it in the close quarters that are typical in plants. Over the past week meat processors JBS USA Holdings Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods temporarily closed plants in Pennsylvania, Iowa and South Dakota after employees came down with Covid-19 or displayed symptoms. Other plants have slowed processing operations.
Those shutdowns and slowdowns are seeding fears of a broader disruption hitting the U.S. food industry, after shoppers in recent weeks cleared out staples from supermarkets in anticipation of weeks or months of eating at home. Domestic supplies of meat and other food commodities have been high heading into the pandemic.
The U.S. government has called on major food processors to continue operating. Mr. Pence this week spoke to executives of U.S. meat and grain companies including Tyson and Hormel Foods Corp., he said at a briefing Tuesday.Mr. Pence said in the briefing that food-industry workers are vital as the U.S. navigates the pandemic: "We need you to continue, as a part of what we call our critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job and know that we're going to continue to work tirelessly in working with all of your companies to make sure that that workplace is safe."
Being able to quickly test employees for the coronavirus, such as with Abbott Laboratories' new 15-minute test debuted last week, would help identify positive cases and assure other workers' safety, a meat industry official said. Dozens of meat-plant workers across the country have been confirmed to have contracted Covid-19, including two dozen employees of a Tyson pork plant in Iowa, the company has said, and more than 80 workers at a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., according to state health officials.
Kim Cordova, president of a United Food and Commercial Workers union representing workers at a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo., estimated around 50 cases among plant employees there. One worker died this week after being hospitalized due to the virus, she said. A spokesman for JBS, which has increased some safety and sanitation practices, had no immediate comment.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents meatpacking workers, this week said that two Tyson employees at a Georgia plant had died after contracting the coronavirus. A Tyson spokesman said the company is working to keep its employees safe, separating processing-line workers with barriers, offering masks and installing infrared temperature scanners. Smithfield on Thursday said it would close its Sioux Falls plant for three days for extra cleaning, but Chief Executive Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement that the company, the largest U.S. pork processor, needed to keep running its farms and plants. "People need to eat," he said.
To keep workers coming in, some food processors have temporarily boosted pay, while staggering shift start times and breaks so that large numbers of employees aren't gathering close together. Some plants have handed out masks, and erected barriers between each worker's spot on processing lines.Some workers have walked off the job and called on companies to do more or shut down plants temporarily to reduce the risk to workers.
As agricultural labor concerns mount, the State Department last month eased requirements on seasonal foreign-worker visas, after the agriculture industry warned that harvests could be disrupted if coronavirus-related curbs on immigration reduced the number of available workers.