UMOS, a workers advocacy group, provided video showing bunk beds less than 6 feet apart at employee housing provided by Birds Eye. The firm said that the dormitory shown only houses workers who tested positive for COVID-19. Wochit
The COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin food processing plants continues to intensify, with more than 100 workers at a Darien facility testing positive for the virus and an employee at a Pleasant Prairie plant dying from the illness.
The Pleasant Prairie employee, according to medical examiner records, died April 15. When the Journal Sentinel posed questions Monday to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding the death, the agency said it would open an investigation and conduct an on-site inspection.
OSHA officials say they are now investigating seven Wisconsin food processing plants over virus-related concerns.The agency had been saying for weeks that it wouldn’t crack down on businesses that didn’t abide by COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Workers and advocates say that at some plants, employees have been asked to work closely together without protection or to report to work even if they showed COVID-19 symptoms.
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Nationwide, some meatpacking plants have closed over COVID-19 concerns, raising questions about the industry’s ability to supply grocery stores. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday keeping chicken, pork and other meat plants open. Late Tuesday, the USDA sent a news release saying the Agriculture Department would implement the president’s order.
It’s unclear how many meatpacking and food processing workers in Wisconsin have been infected. Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the agency did not have the number of essential workers infected readily available.
Officials won’t release number of infected workers
Brown County Health officials have provided numbers for their county, but other local authorities, like Cudahy’s mayor and Kenosha County Division of Health officials, won’t reveal how many workers have been infected at specific facilities.
That leaves workers and residents in the dark about the scope of the problem at a time when officials are discussing how to reopen the state for business.
But the Journal Sentinel has been able to piece together snapshots that show the disease is having a larger impact than previously known on food processing workers.
With the additional cases in Darien, at least 551 meat and food processing workers at seven Wisconsin factories have tested positive — or the equivalent of nearly 9% percent of the state’s reported cases. But the total number of food plant workers infected is likely higher.
In Brown County, more than half of the 913 confirmed cases are food plant workers or people linked to them. Walworth County, where more than 100 workers at the Darien plant tested positive, has reported 139 cases.
At least one meatpacking worker has died from COVID-19, according to a report by the Kenosha County Medical Examiner’s Office. The employee worked in the Calumet meat packaging plant in Pleasant Prairie.
The report doesn’t say whether the worker, born in Mexico and in his early 50s, contracted the disease at the plant. But it says he hadn’t felt well since April 6, when he stopped going to work.
He left behind two daughters and a son, according to his obituary. One of the happiest moments in his life, the obituary said, was being able to put one of his daughters through college. “He worked hard to be able to provide for his family and to be able to take care of them,” the obituary says.
Calumet officials did not respond to written questions from the Journal Sentinel. Liane Blanck, a manager with the Kenosha County Division of Health, said the agency wouldn’t disclose the number of COVID-19 cases at the plant or other businesses in the county.
OSHA investigating companies
OSHA spokeswoman Megan Sweeney said that the agency is investigating Calumet and six other food companies in Wisconsin, four more than previously known.
Birds Eye processing plant in Darien is one of them. As of Monday, 104 of its workers and contractors had tested positive for COVID-19, according to plant manager Christopher Guyon. That number places the plant as the third largest known cluster tied to the food industry in Wisconsin.
The plant, which processes frozen vegetables and fresh carrots, is now virtually closed, Guyon said. The facility usually employs over 800 workers.
On Monday, UMOS, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group that provides services to migrant workers, filed a complaint against Birds Eye with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, saying employees with COVID-19 symptoms were asked to work the line to ensure the product did not spoil.
The complaint also cites a video, obtained by the advocacy group and reviewed by the Journal Sentinel, that shows workers housed in barracks where beds were 1 or 2 feet apart. That could be a possible violation of one of Gov. Tony Ever’s emergency orders, which requires employers to make reasonable efforts to separate beds by at least 6 feet, according to the complaint.
Guyon denied that employees were asked to work while sick. The company, he said, encouraged workers who felt ill to stay home. He said the plant tried to distance the beds as much as possible and had workers sleep in every other bed. The plant also installed plexiglass barriers between beds. Some workers, he said, were housed in hotels.
Birds Eye spokesman Michael Cummins said that the barrack housing shown in the video, lacking plexiglass barriers, is the quarantine housing for workers who tested positive for COVID-19.
Guyon said company officials learned the first worker at the Darien plant tested positive on April 13. Two days later, they learned about the second.
By April 18, 14 employees and two contractors had tested positive. Plant officials shut most of the plant the following day. The plant is planning to reopen May 3.
Guyon said the company has been taking safety measures for six to seven weeks. He said the facility has increased cleaning, implemented temperature monitoring since early April and offered tests to all workers, among other protections.
OSHA is also investigating three plants in Green Bay: the JBS plant, where 255 workers have tested positive; the American Foods Group plant, with 145 confirmed cases; and TNT Crust, where the number of COVID-19 cases is unknown.
Salm Partners plant in Denmark, where 17 workers tested positive, and Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield Foods plant in Cudahy, where workers suspect dozens are infected, are also under investigation.
Immigration advocacy group raised concerns
The investigations of the JBS and American Foods Group plants started after immigration advocacy group Voces de la Frontera reported to OSHA that the companies weren’t following certain safety measures. OSHA sent both companies a letter asking them to investigate the concerns and report back their findings and the corrective measures taken.
The JBS plant in Green Bay shuttered earlier this week. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the plant implemented safety protocols since late February and increased protection as officials learned more about the virus.
Bruett said the company ordered face masks March 19 but couldn’t obtain them until April 3. The company mandated their use April 13, he said. The company has implemented other measures, he said, such as providing face shields and physical partitions on production lines.
American Foods didn’t respond to a request for comment; neither did TNT Crust.
Salm Partners spokeswoman Mary Schmidt said OSHA sent the company a letter saying regulators did not intend to conduct an onsite inspection but that the plant should investigate and report back its findings.
Schmidt said that the plant had started to follow safety guidelinesbefore it learned of its first case on April 6. In early April, for example, the company installed plexiglass dividers between employees working closely together, she said.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance for Smithfield Foods, said only essential employees are working at the Patrick Cudahy meatpacking plant and they are being provided protective equipment.
The Journal Sentinel has spoken with a dozen Smithfield Foods plant workers. Most said they learned through other employees that workers at the company had tested positive. The workers said the company started screening employees’ temperatures after the first cases had been confirmed. Workers weren’t provided face masks until mid-April, they said.
Haley BeMiller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.
You can reach Maria Perez at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariajspl
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