As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Iowa, focus has turned to the state’s meat packing plants as virus hotspots.
In West Liberty, the state’s first Hispanic-majority town, the community’s largest employer is reporting an outbreak of coronavirus cases. As of April 30, West Liberty Foods has reported that 71 employees at its West Liberty location have tested positive for the virus.
In a press release last week from Complex Manager Tom Alberti, the turkey processor reassured the public that they are doing all they can to curb the spread. They say they are requiring entry screenings, providing personal protective face masks for employees, and sanitizing common areas and disinfecting work equipment.
They also say they are shifting production lines to comply with social distancing and reducing line speeds.
However, one employee Starting Line spoke with says the response was not as thorough as the company describes.
“[West Liberty Foods] had their first case and tried to deny it to their employees because people were getting scared and wanting to go home,” one worker said on the condition of anonymity. “It was only after their third or fourth case, they started handing out masks.”
Workers also say they are learning of the number of positive cases like everyone else, through the company’s daily Twitter updates.
West Liberty City Councilman Jose Zacarias, a former employee of West Liberty Foods himself, says he’s skeptical of the plant’s statement.
“I am assuming they are not telling us the truth. The numbers are bigger,” he said.
Zacarias said workers have personally reached out to him, telling him that they are afraid to go work at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Despite those fears, some workers still show up to work because they can’t afford to miss a paycheck. Zacarias says since the company is offering them employment, making them ineligible for unemployment insurance, puts workers in an impossible situation.
“The workers are apparently disposable,” he said.
The company also furloughed 58 workers, although some workers have said that they have been called back.
The facility closed from April 9 to the 14 to undergo a deep cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus and the company says it will continue to do so periodically. The next cleaning is scheduled for this weekend, May 1-3.
As for employees that have tested positive for the virus, West Liberty Foods says, “they are being paid 100% their normal wages while recovering.”
Mass testing for employees is expected to happen at West Liberty Foods throughout the next few days. Testing tents have gone up outside the facility, similar to Tyson’s testing efforts at their packing facilities throughout the state. Zacarias says that with mass testing, he expects cases to skyrocket.
“The only reason they are starting to test people is because enough people have complained. That is the real story,” the employee added.
by Michael Aragon
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