The number of COVID-19 cases linked to meatpacking plants in Iowa is growing daily, an issue Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer wants federal agencies to address by ensuring workers have the protective equipment and testing needed to perform their jobs safely.
As of Monday afternoon, COVID-19 outbreaks have been confirmed at Tyson factories in Columbus Junction, Waterloo and Perry; Prestage Foods in Eagle Grove; JBS in Marshalltown; and National Beef Co.’s Iowa Premium in Tama.
Finkenauer’s 1st District includes Waterloo, Marshalltown and Tama, where hundreds of plant employees have tested positive for the respiratory disease.
“This week, I’ve heard from workers across my district facing dangerous conditions as they perform essential jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Finkenauer said Friday in a statement. “I’m asking the USDA, the CDC and the Department of Labor to provide clear guidance and standards to protect the wellbeing of these frontline workers as well as our food supply and agricultural economy.”
On March 27, after the first three deaths of Iowans due to COVID-19 were announced, all of whom were her constituents, Finkenauer became the first member of Iowa’s congressional delegation to call on Gov. Kim Reynolds to issue a statewide “stay-at-home” order.
We also have major outbreaks at processing plants, putting our health, food supply & economy at risk. The gov’s solution is to punt to employers. That’s not enough. We need oversight & protection for workers especially at companies that pushed for gutting of worker’s comp. #ia01
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) April 15, 2020
The number of infections in Iowa is up to 3,159 as of Tuesday morning. The statewide death toll is 79.
On Sunday, the Iowa Department of Public Health said two-thirds of the 389 cases reported that day were “attributed to surveillance testing of meat processing facilities.”
Yesterday, 46 of the state’s 257 positive cases are tied to meatpacking plants, with 27 attributed to Tyson employees and 19 to National Beef, according to the governor’s office.
Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction closed April 6 and is set to reopen today with limited production. Two Columbus Junction employees have died due to complications from COVID-19. Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo is still open and the plant in Perry was idled for a one-day cleaning.
National Beef’s Iowa Premium plant reopened today after announcing its closure one week ago. In Eagle Grove, Prestage Foods said “plant operations will be limited” until all testing results are confirmed. The 2,700-employee JBS plant is still open in Marshalltown.
“We will continue to see clusters of positive cases in these types of facilities because COVID-19 spreads quickly and easily among people in close proximity, and once the virus is introduced into this type of environment is is very difficult to contain,” Reynolds said Monday morning at a press conference, referencing the long-term care facilities and meatpacking plants that are responsible for a majority of the state’s positive cases.
“But these are also essential businesses and essential workforce and without them people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted,” she said. “We must do our part to keep them open in a safe and responsible way.”
Finkenauer’s letter to Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requests the agency issue “industry-specific guidance” on health and safety regulations for food processors as it already has done for airlines and other transit industries.
In her letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the congresswoman notes her concern for workers’ safety and disruption to the nation’s food supply chain if plants are forced to close or greatly reduce production because their workers are home sick.
“By protecting the essential employees who work in our processing plants, we are protecting the future of our state,” Finkenauer said, in an April 17 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “They need testing, personal protective equipment, and leave policies that put their health ahead of the bottom line. Employers also need resources and clarity on how to protect them.
“During this public health crisis, when it comes to safety measures and equipment, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it,” she continued. “We must do more for the people who make sure that we have food on our grocery stores shelves.”
By Elizabeth Meyer