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The balance between opening processing plants and protecting workers

y Stan Maddux
Indiana Correspondent

President Donald Trump ordered meat processing plants to reopen last week. However, this doesn’t doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the backlog of farm animals and potential food shortages. Some meat processing plants have closed in order to deep clean after employees have tested positive from Covid-19. Those closures have ranged from a few days to a few weeks. 
Enough workers in the plants have to feel safe enough from COVID-19 to want to return to their jobs, said James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. Roth said he believes processing plants are doing the testing and other things necessary to gain the confidence of their employees fearing infection but how many of them return or continue working at the facilities remains to be seen.
“I’m sure many are willing to go back to work but it takes a lot of people to keep one of these plants going,” he said.
Many workers expressed outrage when President Trump implemented the Defense Production Act last week to keep the plants running. He citing risks to the food supply chain from a growing string of plant closures
“I think they should bring the president down here and have him work shoulder to shoulder and join the fun,” Gary Harris, a worker at a Tyson pork processing facility in Logansport Indiana was quoted by the Indianapolis Star as saying. 
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union representing over 250,000 meatpackers and processors was among the labor organizations demanding states get involved to assure workplace safe. “Every governor has the ability to take key steps and additional safety actions to protect these workers and it is imperative that they do so immediately,” said UFCW president Marc Perrone.
A Tyson plant which closed April 25 for worker testing announced on May 1 plans to resume limited production this week.
“While the facility was idled, we added more work station barriers, installed more hand sanitizer dispensers and did additional deep cleaning and sanitation,” said Todd Neff, vice-president of Tyson Fresh Meats. “We’re also now screening employees for additional symptoms and designating monitors to help enforce social distancing,” Neff said.
Tyson also revealed partnering with Matrix Medical Network to operate clinics at many of its facilities including in Logansport, Ind., and Waterloo, Iowa, to provide screening and diagnostic services for workers.
$60 million in bonuses announced in early April for its 116,000 frontline plant workers and truckers showing up for their jobs was doubled. Short term disability coverage was also raised to 90-percent of normal pay until June 30 for workers unable to work due to illness, Tyson officials said. 
Indiana Packers Corporation, which shut down its plant in Delphi last week, said all of its employees were being tested and the Indiana State Department of Health was involved in developing a plan to resume operations.
“The collaboration with the state is absolutely critical to our steps in creating a safe work environment for our team members,” said Russ Yearwood, IPC’s president and CEO.
The president’s decision was applauded by a wide range of leaders in the agriculture industry seeking relief from a growing number of unprocessed livestock and farm animals having to be destroyed.
“These farmers are facing heartbreaking decisions right now with nowhere to send their animals,” said Randy Kron, president of Indiana Farm Bureau.
“If plants can process our animals while keeping workers safe that is a step in the right direction for the plants, pork farmers and consumers. However, with the severity of the back-ups of pigs on farms across the country, there is still much more work to be done to alleviate the strain on our farmers and their animals,” said Josh Trenary, executive director of Indiana Pork.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said he supports efforts to create local task forces that provide a framework for plants to safely reopen.
Peterson, a farmer and democrat from Minnesota, also said plants running only at a scale and speed suitable for the number of employees showing up is part of having a safe workplace.
Roth said a complete solution for everyone involved during the pandemic is a major challenge. He said ramping up plant capacity too quickly could mean placing workers at a greater risk but limiting production doesn’t cut into the surplus of live animals fast enough considering how fast backlogs can develop.
One reason some animals have started being destroyed is to make room for others coming after birth.
“It’s a real dilemma for everybody,” he said.