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Complaint accuses meat packing plant of not protecting workers during COVID-19 pandemic

JBS owns plants in Iowa and other states; one worker in Ottumwa has tested positive for coronavirus
Credit: LULAC

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — "Unsafe working conditions exist at the JBS meat processing plant," according to an OSHA complaint filed on behalf of the 2,700 workers at the JBS facility in Marshalltown.

Joe Henry is with the League of United Latin American Citizens. He filed a complaint against JBS this week, citing that many workers have notified his group of alleged unsafe working conditions despite new guidelines from the federal government due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The meat packing plant in Marshalltown employs about ten percent of the city's population, and though there hasn't been a positive case identified at the plant, Henry told Local 5 that it's only a matter of time.

"For these food production employees not to have protection is unethical and immoral," said Henry. "This is gonna be something that has to be confronted."

According to the OSHA-filed complaint, the workers "work shoulder to shoulder in most of the meat cutting and processing department rooms at the facility...Based on your OSHA publication (#3990-03 2020) the current work practices would be in violation of your new guidelines."

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Henry noted that at a JBS Ottumwa plant, a worker there tested positive for COVID-19, yet the plant was not shut down. In a letter address to the Assistant Secretary of Labor, LULAC said, "We are deeply concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on essential workers including those in the meat packing industry. Meat and poultry workers have always played an essential role in the American society and economy, yet at a time when they are labeled “essential” they are being exposed with little recourse. As millions are filing for unemployment, meatpackers continue to do grueling shoulder-to-shoulder work even when sick, for fear of losing their jobs."

LULAC and Henry are both asking the federal government to provide "clear and uniform guidelines" for facilities like meat processing plants. According to OSHA's updated guidelines on COVID-19 for employers, it reads that "Employers are obligated to provide their workers with PPE needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE required during a COVID-19 outbreak will be based on the risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 while working and job tasks that may lead to exposure."

Credit: OSHA

According to OSHA, a "very high exposure risk" worker is someone who works in health care or someone who works in a morgue. A medium exposure risk job includes workers who "may have frequent contact with travelers who may return from international locations with widespread COVID-19 transmission. In areas where there is ongoing community transmission, workers in this category may have contact with the general public (e.g., schools, high-population-density work environments, some high-volume retail settings)."

According to Henry's complaint about JBS, employees do not stand six feet apart at the Marshalltown plant and are not wearing protective gear. He submitted a photo to OSHA and Local 5, allegedly from the plant.

Credit: LULAC

JBS disputes the claim and said in a statement to Local 5 that, "the health and safety of our team members providing food for us all remains our top priority."

"As a food company providing an essential service during the global pandemic, we are doing everything we can to promote a safe working environment, while producing food for our country," said Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS. "We have enhanced safety measures at JBS Marshalltown to keep our workplace, team members and products safe, including increased sanitation and disinfection efforts; health screening and temperature testing; staggered starts, shifts and breaks; heightened health protocols; increased spacing in cafeterias, break rooms and locker rooms; and enhanced worker benefits."

Gov. Kim Reynolds has ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, but plants like JBS are not included in that order. She has said in her press briefings that manufacturing plants and food processing plants are essential to Iowa's economy. 

"I can't lock the state down, I can't lock everybody in their home," Reynolds said on Tuesday. "We have to make sure the supply chain is up and going. We have an essential workforce that has to be available." 

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