Tyson Foods processing plant in rural Iowa hit hard by coronavirus with 186 positive cases
Soaring numbers of workers at the Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork-processing plant who have been sickened by COVID-19 have sparked fears not only for the employees’ health but also for the vitality of this small town and the continuity of the nation’s meat supply.
Officials from Tyson Foods have closed the plant amid one of the state’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19: 186 employees have tested positive for the illness. The facility is one of the nation’s major pork processing plants and the rural community’s largest employer.
“We are taking on water fast,” National Pork Producers Council President Howard “A.V.” Roth said, adding that thousands of hog farms could close this year without government intervention. “Immediate action is imperative, or a lot of hog farms will go under.”
The Columbus Junction plant is one of several meatpacking facilities across the state and the nation where business has been suspended after they were hard-hit by the highly contagious coronavirus.
In Tama County, where 108 positive COVID tests and three deaths have been reported, National Beef suspended production at Iowa Premium beef plant after an outbreak. Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, shut its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant recently as the coronavirus spread among workers.
Meat processing plants from Colorado to Canada have similarly suspended production after the virus spread.
“The whole system is gummed up,” Iowa State University agricultural economist Dermot Hayes said. “It’s not just the farm and the packer. It’s all along the chain.”
Tyson Foods officials said on April 14 that the company would keep its Columbus Junction plant, which has about 1,400 employees in normal times, shuttered. The plant – said to be responsible for 2% of the country’s total slaughtering capacity – has been closed since April 6. The company is diverting livestock originally scheduled for delivery at Columbus Junction to its other plants, when possible.
Tyson was taking precautions to protect its employees from the spread before the closure. Staff was checking the temperature of workers at all locations before they entered facilities. But checking temperatures only ensures that symptomatic people do not engage with others; those who are not feverish can still spread the virus.
“Protecting our team members continues to be top priority for us,” the company said in a statement to the Des Moines Register. The plant will continue to pay employees and keep its doors closed while assessing the situation, officials said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said on April 14 that nearly half of the day’s newly confirmed cases – 86 of the 189 – were tied to the Tyson Food plant outbreak.
Testing increases, and with it positive tests
Reynolds said earlier in the week that 200 testing swabs were sent to the Columbus Junction, Iowa, plant and indicated a quick-test machine was provided. She said she hopes more testing will be the first step to getting the plant back in operation.
The extra tests will help the state “understand who was positive, who was negative, which was part of the scenario in opening the plant back up,” Reynolds said. “The plant is also putting in a lot of measures to protect the employees.”
Columbus Junction Mayor Mark Huston said not all of Tyson’s employees are from the town or even a part of the county. But the suspension of the plant’s work will likely have a major economic effect on his community of fewer than 2,000 people.
“Let’s say there was an employer (in Des Moines) that employed 200,000 people – one employer – and then they shut down,” Huston said to the Des Moines Register. “What do you think that would do to Des Moines and the surrounding area?”
Huston, who said he’s spoken with the plant manager, expects testing to be done on nearly all of the facility’s employees.
“We’ll all make it through this,” the mayor told the Quad-City Times. “It’s just what is the damage going to look like when it gets done. It’s kind of like high-water time. When the water goes down, you have to take a look and see what you’ve got, roll up your sleeves and figure out how to fix it. Hopefully, we will be able to fix most of it, but we won’t be able to fix all of it.”
Other Iowa plants also have cases
Tyson Foods delivered face masks to its 2,000 employees at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant on April 14, said Bob Waters, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431, which represents the employees.
Waters said “a couple” of workers have tested positive for coronavirus at the plant over the past couple of weeks, though the operation has continued.
According to state data, at least 78 people have tested positive for the disease in Black Hawk County, home to Waterloo.
Tyson Foods did not respond to a request for comment about the situation in Waterloo.
Guards at the Waterloo plant are also taking employees’ temperatures when they arrive, and Waters said the company suspended its attendance policy. Workers who skip work will not receive payment, but they will not get fired, either.
Like at other meat processors, Tyson officials have added plexiglass on the line to separate workers. Waters said the plant also slowed down how fast the pork moves down the line so that fewer workers have to cram into a given area. But, as is the nature of the work, Waters believes the company can separate workers only so much.
“You’re working side by side,” he said. “In order to be able to effectively (keep employees safe), you have to space them out at least 6 feet. On the lines, it’s kind of hard.”
Waters said UFCW Local 431 purchased 5,000 bottles of sprayable hand sanitizer for workers at Tyson Foods and other plants it represents. They are ordering another 5,000 shipments from a source in Wisconsin.
As dangerous as the work is, he said it must continue.
“We can’t stop the plants,” he said. “If we stop the plants from running, we stop feeding the country. We want to do everything we can to make sure the employees are safe to keep the plant running.”