GARDEN CITY, Kansas — The continuing spread of COVID-19 among workers who slaughter livestock and package meat poses a growing threat to keeping the industry’s plants in operation.
Now in the cattle slaughterhouses of southwest Kansas, both National Beef Packing Co. and Cargill Inc. have confirmed cases of the coronavirus among workers at their plants in Dodge City and Liberal.
Tyson Foods Inc. has not publicly confirmed the number of cases or which of its locations have the virus. In an email, a spokeswoman for Finney County government declined to say whether there are confirmed cases at the plant — the county’s largest employer.
As the global pandemic reaches deeper into small cities on the Great Plains where meatpacking is concentrated — the number of COVID-19 cases in Ford County went from 17 to 107 in the last week — the industry could face a stall.
In the meantime, unions have begun pressing for better coronavirus protections inside plants where workers stand-side-by side to cut meat from carcases. And while plants have implemented extra sanitation shifts and social distancing efforts, it’s not always possible for workers to stand 6 feet apart.
Martin Rosas is president of the United Food & Commercial Workers District Union Local 2, which represents 9,000 meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas. He said workers are anxious.
“One of the biggest concerns that our members have … is social distancing while their lunch time and break times occur” he said.
National Beef and Cargill have met the union’s requests to stagger break times and have provided more space and barriers to employees during breaks.
Rosas said the union wants meatpacking plants to slow down production lines for workers’ safety.
“Because if their line hasn’t been slowed down yet, that’s going to create another safety hazard,” Rosas said. “If … people try to change their masks and try to grab a hold of their product, it makes it difficult.”
On April 8, National Beef announced the first positive case at its Dodge City plant.
On April 11, the company confirmed COVID-19 cases among its workers, but it did not specify the number of cases at its Liberal location.
“These employees have not been in our Liberal facility for several days and are now in quarantine at home for time required for a full recovery,” the statement said.
On April 16, Keith Welty with National Beef said the company is not confirming specific numbers of cases but said employees have tested positive in Dodge City. Now that plant has moved its scheduled cleaning up by a week. From April 16 through the 21, the plant will shut down, and Welty said that will stop beef production for three days.
The plant is using that time to install stainless steel partitions between workers on the production floor. Heated tents have been set up outside for lunch breaks and National Beef has said it has provided face masks and face shields for workers.
Daniel Sullivan, a Cargill spokesman, confirmed the company’s Dodge City location has confirmed positive cases, but did not specify how many.
“Our priority is limiting the spread of the virus where we can,” Sullivan said. “We are working with local health officials to ensure appropriate prevention, testing, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed.”
Sullivan said Cargill is also taking workers’ temperatures, providing face coverings and practicing social distancing where possible.
Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the company is checking employees’ temperatures and supplying face coverings, has installed plastic dividers and is practicing social distancing.
In the meantime, the union asked Gov. Laura Kelly to issue an executive order that would mandate meatpacking plants and grocery stores abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines to keep workers safe. Rosas said the governor hasn’t replied.
Glynn Tonsor, a professor in the department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University, estimates that southwest Kansas plants account for about 25 to 30% of the country's beef production.
“If we have more than three of the large plants down for more than a week, then you start having a bigger problem of cattle stacking up,” he said.
As of mid-April, Tonsor said he doesn’t think the nation is on the brink of a meat shortage.
“Mainly because we haven't had multiple plants with that (coronavirus) challenge yet,” he said.
Tyson has shut down its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant, Croston said in an email. She added that the company has “scaled back production” at its Finney County plant.
“We’re beginning to experience varying levels of production at some locations,” she said. “Some is planned due to additional worker safety precautions, but some is occurring because of absenteeism.”
Nicole’s fiance works at National Beef. She’s raising two young children with compromised immune systems. The Kansas News Service is only using her middle name because she fears that talking publicly could create problems for her fiance at work.
He’s the family’s only source of income, and his potential exposure to a virus at work is a source of anxiety for the family.
“He gets right into the shower to wash off any bacteria that he possibly can,” she said. “It’s very stressful because he is scared to hold or touch the kids just in case he may have come into contact with anybody or anything.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Corinne_Boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
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