Eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, food plant workers have mixed feelings about them

A woman wearing a mask takes note.
Jessica Velasco, community director of Unidos Worthington, listens to residents at Sungold Heights Mobile Home Park. There were a mixture of responses on how some felt about the COVID-19 vaccine, and whether they'd get in line to receive their shots.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Jessica Velasco walked through Sungold Heights Mobile Home Park with a purpose. She was in the Worthington, Minn. neighborhood to learn why some people might not be rushing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Almost a year after JBS Pork Processing suspended operations in Worthington, when COVID-19 surged through its workforce, food processing plant employees are now on the priority list for vaccination.

On her walk, Velasco, who works with the advocacy group Unidos Worthington, stopped to talk with two men cutting down tree branches. She asked them how they felt about the vaccine and whether they plan to get vaccinated. One man who said he works at a local processing plant plans to do so. The other wondered about the vaccine’s side effects, especially since no one in his family has had the virus. Velasco has an answer for him.

“You might get symptoms, that feels like COVID symptoms, but you're not going to get sick, you're not going to catch the virus,” Velasco said she told him. She added the man said if obligated to get the vaccine at work, he will take it, but otherwise would say no.

A woman talks to two men outside.
Jessica Velasco, left, talks to two men who were doing yard work in Sungold Heights Mobile Home Park in Worthington on March 12, 2021.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Food processing plant workers who get the vaccine protect themselves from coronavirus infection and may help protect family members living with them who have not yet been vaccinated. But the reasons for not getting the vaccine are complicated.

Some are afraid they will have to reveal immigration status. Others may have past trauma and mistrust related to governments back in their home countries. Velasco said misinformation spreading on social media is a problem that she is personally trying to counter.

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“I don’t think anyone’s really asking folks,” Velasco said. “We just really need to know … where there’s a gap between the information and the person that needs the information.”

A woman wearing a mask takes note.
Jessica Velasco, community director of Unidos Worthington, jots down answers to some of her questions she asked residents at Sungold Heights Mobile Home Park.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Food processing plants in Minnesota and elsewhere were hit hard by the pandemic. Some had to suspend operations and workers got sick. Many had to adapt safety protocols to reduce spreading the virus and also offer incentives for employees to keep working.

“We have also provided bonuses and increased wages, and we are now focused on fighting for vaccine access for our team members and leveraging our preventative measures to keep the virus out of our facilities,” a JBS USA spokesperson said in an email statement from February. The company offers a $100 incentive bonus for any team member willing to get vaccinated.

HyLife, a pork processing operation based in Canada, is working with western Minnesota county health departments to coordinate vaccine distributions. Even though the Windom, Minn. facility saw a number of employees out sick because of COVID-19, HyLife is not requiring their employees to get vaccinated.

HyLife executive Tom Seigfried said the company is considering a one-time incentive to those wanting access to the vaccine instead.

“We know that with the forthcoming vaccines that are going to be made available, that’s going to reduce some of this risk,” Seigfried said. “No matter what the challenge is going forward, we’re going to find a way to overcome it.”

For the foreseeable future, Velasco said that Unidos will keep knocking on doors, even if in the end people are not willing to get COVID-19 shots. 

“I have to keep remembering that, so I don't get upset when they don't want to listen to me, I really have to turn that around and be like, ‘No, you have to listen to them,’” she said. “Right before they're ready to take the vaccine, if there's a place in their mind that there's a doubt, they can ask you.”         

A woman knocks on a door for a survey.
Jessica Velasco felt it was important to continue reaching out to communities in Worthington and ask residents directly about their thoughts on the COVID-19 vaccine and what information they had about eligibility.
Hannah Yang | MPR News