Officials say at least 26 workers at SW Minnesota pork processing plant have COVID-19

The JBS Pork Plant
The JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn., as seen in 2013. State health officials said Saturday that at least 20 workers at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News 2013

Updated: April 19, 10:30 p.m.

Minnesota health officials said Sunday that more than two dozen employees of the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington have tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition to at least 26 JBS employees testing positive, the Minnesota Department of Health said at least 34 other COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in the Worthington area, with that number expected to rise.

“Staff from the Department of Labor and Industry and MDH will be visiting the JBS site on Monday to observe health screening processes and continued implementation of social distancing practices,” state health officials said.

The JBS plant employs more than 2,000 people and remains open. The company has taken some safety measures — installing plastic or plexiglass barriers on production lines and in the lunch room, scanning the temperature of workers entering the plant to see if anyone has a fever, and increasing cleaning, among other measures.

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And the union representing workers announced Sunday that the company has agreed to give workers a $4-an-hour raise through the end of May. Workers also will get more access to masks, gloves and face shields.

But union officials have been calling on the company to slow down production, so workers who normally are shoulder-to-shoulder on the line can work farther apart.

UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht told MPR News on Saturday that the union is trying to find ways to keep the plant open, safely, for members who want to work.

"My belief is that if we slow down the line speeds and we increase the social distancing on these production lines, we can achieve that," he said. "We can keep both the plant operating and those folks that want to work, will continue to work. And we can make that environment safer if we spread people out, if we practice what we're practicing out into the general public and that is social distancing. My goal is not to close JBS down. My goal is to keep JBS open."

The JBS plant in Worthington is just one of a number of meat processing plants around the country facing an outbreak of COVID-19 — including the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., where more than 600 workers have tested positive. That plant has closed indefinitely.

Utecht said workers at the Worthington plant are concerned about the coronavirus — but also fearful of what would happen to them, and their families, without a paycheck.

"The workforce in Worthington is looking at (Smithfield), going, 'My God, it's less than an hour away from us.' They're fearful that they're going to become the next Smithfield situation," Utecht said. "So that's where the panic is. ... They don't want to see that situation take hold in their facility."

Comparing the Smithfield and JBS outbreaks, Utecht noted the differences in approach by state leaders in Minnesota — where a statewide stay-at-home order has been in effect for several weeks — and South Dakota, where no such order is in effect.

He said he believed the lack of a statewide order in South Dakota "had a great deal to do with how that COVID took root and just exploded inside of that (Smithfield) facility. They weren't practicing, as a state, social distancing. Minnesota is and has been proactive in that — and I think that gives us a leg up on getting on top of this smaller outbreak in Worthington right now."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Friday that the state is working with local officials and JBS in responding to the outbreak.

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said Friday that the city had been bracing itself for a possible outbreak at JBS, and said he's hopeful that precautions can be put in place that keep workers safe and the plant, the city’s largest employer, in operation.

"We're going to be able to keep this plant running. I'm hopeful,” he said. “I'm praying to God that we can make this happen. But, at the end of the day, we have to be mindful of the health of all our residents."