Utah meatpacking plants are deemed essential businesses, but the industry and its workers are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. Hundreds of workers at the Hyrum JBS plant in Logan were infected with COVID-19 in the last month. Monday night the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson held a Facebook Live conversation on how the Utah meatpacking industry and its workers have been impacted.
“Meatpacking plants are something of a perfect storm for transmission of this particular type of virus because people are doing physical labor, you know, lifting and exercising which gets a lot of breathing heavily which is likely to get more of the virus spread out,” Peterson said. “They’re in relatively confined areas, spreading it around quickly in confined spaces. In that kind of environment you just absolutely have to have immediate result testing.”
Jim McLaughlin is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99, a food workers union that represents the Hyrum plant workers. He said he’s given suggestions to the industry for how they can adjust the work to slow the virus spread.
“We have to slow down these lines,” McLaughlin said. “You can’t have workers pushing through hundreds of heads of cattle an hour because you’re on top of each other.”
Mclaughlin said that JBS wasn’t prepared for the virus, especially when it came to immediately supplying hospital-grade PPE. The company is now implementing daily health checks and regular testing for employees, but the results are anything but immediate.
“It’s seven to ten days in some cases for people to get their test results back, they were still going to work and it continued to spread,” McLaughlin said. “You almost have to test everybody, shut everybody down, and when you have hundreds of tests that come back, the results of which show that people are sick, it sets out the pandemic we’re experiencing.”
As essential businesses, meatpacking plants can’t shut down entirely if there is an outbreak, and McLaughlin emphasizes that there is no perfect response during this pandemic. However, the industry will have to make changes to protect its workers.