In Nebraska, meat plant workers are afraid to go to work — but can't afford to stay home

"If it closed down, it would be devastating for families in town," said one JBS worker who chose to stay home from April 3 after he developed a cough. He tested positive Friday.

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By Olivia Solon

With 3,500 workers, the JBS beef processing plant is one of the largest employers in Grand Island, Nebraska. It’s also the epicenter of the town’s COVID-19 outbreak: employees make up 28 of the 105 people confirmed to have the virus.

This has created a dilemma for workers whose livelihoods depend on the meat plant that remains open as an essential part of the food supply chain and the local economy at a time when many people are self-isolating: do they risk exposing themselves to the virus at work, or stay home without pay?

"The people who are still working there are very afraid of catching the virus and passing it to our families at home, but we cannot stop going to work because we need to keep food on the table," said one employee, who added she worked in the "intestine area" of the plant and did not wish to be named for fear of losing her job.

NBC News spoke to four current employees at JBS Grand Island, three on the condition of anonymity, as well as two former employees, advocacy groups and a union representative.

They all painted a similar picture: workers scared to go to work but in desperate need of income to feed their families, and widespread absenteeism leading to a reduction in the amount of meat being processed. At the same time, JBS has tried hard to assuage people’s fears with a range of new safety measures, such as plexiglass dividers and thermal cameras to detect fevers.

While some workers felt a sense of duty to ensure Americans remained fed, others were angry that the company wasn’t doing more to protect its employees.

"The cows that are slaughtered daily by the company are more important than their own workers," one said, adding that they earn between $16.50 and $25 per hour. "It’s not anyone’s dream job. Nothing in there is easy, but there are not many better opportunities for an immigrant who does not speak good English."

A spokesperson for JBS said in a statement that the company has experienced an uptick in people missing work but that it is not pushing employees to come in while sick or punishing them for missing work.

"If someone is sick or lives with someone who is sick, we send them home," the company said. "Every day, thousands of committed team members show up to the facility to help our community and our nation face this crisis. We salute and thank them."

The food chain

With much of the United States still on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, close attention is being paid to the country's food supply chain. While nervous shoppers have cleared out supermarkets, those shelves have mostly been refilled with food and goods.

But the outbreak's reach into rural parts of America that fuel the food supply are causing concern. Grand Island is about 130 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, south of the three counties that boast the most beef production in the country.

What’s happening at JBS in Grand Island is also playing out at other meat processing plants across the nation, where workers kill, cut up and package pork, poultry and beef in close quarters to ensure America’s grocery stores remain stocked with hamburgers, steaks and chicken breasts.

Some plants have temporarily closed after workers fell ill. JBS closed another beef-processing plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for two weeks after several managers in the 1,000-strong plant developed flu-like symptoms. In Marshalltown, Iowa, the Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint in early April against a JBS meatpacking plant for failing to protect staff members during the pandemic.

At a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia, four employees have died from COVID-19. Several employees spoke to NBC News about conditions inside, with one describing having to work “shoulder to shoulder on the line.”

“We are really scared to come to work. We are risking our lives,” another employee said. “We don’t know who’s sick and we’re standing side by side.”

Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents employees at a variety of companies across the southeast, says he has received complaints from each of the more than 20 facilities, including the Camilla location.

“They’re fearful of taking this home to their families,” Fields said.

Hector Gonzalez, Tyson Foods’ senior vice-president in human resources, says the company is “heartbroken” over the deaths of its four employees, and that the Camilla facility is closed through the weekend to undergo deep cleaning for the fourth time.

The company describes additional precautions, including plastic divisions between some workers and a relaxed attendance policy, “to ensure that team members feel encouraged to stay home if they are not feeling well.”

But Fields said these and other security measures from companies are not enough.

“If we can protect workers from when they walk in the door to when they walk out, that company has done what they needed to do.”

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In Pennsylvania, a 900-worker Cargill plant in Hazleton shut down after 130 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Tyson Foods suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19, the company said. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Smithfield Foods closed down a pork plant after 80 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Some of the Grand Island employees think the same should happen to their place of work.

"I really think they should close for a few weeks to try to avoid the spread of disease," one worker said.

Others, however, fear the economic ramifications of such a decision.

"If it closed down, it would be devastating for families in town," said Eddie Diaz, a JBS worker who chose to stay home from April 3 after he developed a cough. He was tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday and on Friday received confirmation from the clinic that he has the virus, although his symptoms are mild.

"I’m confused and scared," he said, half an hour after receiving his test results. He was trying to contact family and friends to tell them the news.

'Taking it seriously'

Over the last few weeks, the company has made several changes to the plant, including adding thermal cameras at the entrance to check if people have fevers, placing hand sanitizer stations throughout the plant and placing plexiglass dividers between seats at the cafeteria and between worker stations on the production line.

The company has staggered break times to reduce the size of crowds in communal areas at any one time and is asking staff members to wear masks. Sanitation employees wearing backpacks are also using misters to disinfect surfaces throughout the day.

"At first they weren’t ready but I think they are now taking it seriously," Diaz said.

He said that the company had relaxed its rules so that people can choose to stay home if they are worried about contracting the virus and, as long as they call in to their supervisor each day, they won’t have points deducted from their records for poor attendance, which can lead to disciplinary action or, eventually, losing their jobs.

Many workers have taken the company up on this offer. According to ex-employee Jose Enrique, who keeps in touch with many former colleagues, the number of staff members coming into work is down by two-thirds, and the number of cattle slaughtered has fallen from 2,500 per day to just 1,000.

Even so, there are still bottlenecks when hundreds of people arrive for their shift and line up to sign in, he said.

If people develop symptoms or are in a high-risk group, such as pregnant women or those receiving cancer treatment, they are allowed to be absent at full pay, the company said.

All employees will get a $600 bonus if they are still with the company by May 15.

The bonus, however, is a poor substitute for safety for some of the workers. "A human being is worth more than $600. My life and the life of my children is more important," one worker who has chosen to stay home without pay said.

Limited testing

Still, very few employees have been tested for the virus. This week, the National Guard started offering drive-through testing for employees at the plant who suspected they might have the virus. However, they can only test 75 people per day, according to a spokeswoman for Nebraska’s Central District Health Department, the public health department responsible for Grand Island.

Even with limited testing, the number of confirmed cases in the plant has tripled within the last week, roughly in line with the total number of cases. On April 3, 10 of Grand Island’s 33 cases were at the plant. As of April 9, 28 out of a total of 105 cases stemmed from the plant.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

A combination of social distancing measures and mass absenteeism is likely to create food supply issues in the short term, analysts say, although the closure of many restaurants — major consumers of meat — means that a reduced output of meat should still be able to meet the consumer demand once companies figure out how to adapt their packaging and delivery processes.

"We are not going to starve, but we may be eating meaningfully less meat in the near term," said Decker Walker, partner and global leader of Boston Consulting Group’s food and agriculture practice.

In the long term, Walker said, this pandemic is likely to accelerate companies’ plans to automate meat processing plants, which is likely to lead to "a lot of unemployment."

"Parts of businesses where there is a large low-skilled labor component, in particular where food safety and health are concerns, are going to be under high levels of scrutiny going forward," he said.

Blayne Alexander contributed.