Union expresses safety concerns as Jennie-O plants reopen after coronavirus outbreak

Two Jennie-O facilities had closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers.
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Jennie-O Turkey

A union representing meatpacking workers have expressed safety concerns over the reopening of meat processing plants across the U.S. in the wake of President Donald Trump's executive order, including two in Minnesota.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers, says that the facilities are being rushed into reopening and that there remain "serious safety issues."

It references two Minnesota plants that have reopened in recent days following significant outbreaks of COVID-19: JBS USA in Worthington and Jennie-O Turkey in Willmar.

Jennie-O confirmed on Thursday and Friday that two of its Minnesota facilities that had been temporarily closed, its Benson Avenue plant in Willmar and one in Melrose, were reopening. It came in the same week that JBS USA opened up in a limited capacity following an outbreak that has fueled 1,255 confirmed cases of the virus in Nobles County.

In Minnesota, the Department of Health has been working with plants to help bring them back online, with the UFCW Local 63 involved in developing a safety plan to protect workers at the Worthington plant as operations resumed.

This plan included separating workers on the production line using dividers, rigorous disinfecting protocols, and erecting a tent outside to give people more space during lunch.

But the UFCW argues that the two Minnesota plants and a dozen other major meat processing plants in other states are being rushed into reopening despite a lack of "clear and enforceable safety standards" imposed by the federal government.

It is calling on the White House to ensure each facility is provided with the "highest level of protective equipment, ensure daily testing is available for all meatpacking workers, enforce physical distancing at all plants, provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected, and establish constant monitoring by federal inspectors to ensure these safety standards are enforced."

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The Jennie-O Turkey Store facilities in Melrose and Willmar reopened with limited workers at the end of last week, and will be ramping up its production and bringing more workers back in the coming days.

The company is also working on the reopening of its other Willmar plant, on Willmar Avenue.

"We remain committed to our industry-leading efforts to maintain and enhance safety protections for our team members and this community," Steve Lykken, president of Jennie-O Turkey Store said.

"We have put the safety of our staff first throughout this pandemic and will continue to do so. Now that we have reopened our Benson Avenue plant, our team is turning its attention and efforts to our new awareness initiative called KEEP COVID OUT!

"This campaign reinforces the preventative measures throughout our facility and the efforts of our team members to keep COVID-19 outside of our building and out of our communities. COVID-19 affects all of us and we must work together to stop its spread, both at the workplace and outside of work."

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