Two More Nebraska Meatpacking Plants Close Amid COVID-19 Concerns
By Christina Stella , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
May 5, 2020, 6:02 p.m. ·
Two additional meatpacking plants in Nebraska have announced temporary closures amid COVID-19 outbreaks.
According to the CDC, at least 12 plants across Nebraska employing nearly 20,000 have COVID-19 outbreaks. At least 588 employees are sick and two workers have died: The most recent known death was a worker at the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant in Fremont, which produces chicken for Costco stores nationwide.
But despite safety concerns and an increasing number of sick workers, Nebraska’s meatpacking plants have largely opted to keep production moving amid the pandemic.
Until Monday, only one plant statewide had opted to close: the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, where over six hundred people have reportedly contracted the virus and at least one worker has died. According to company officials, the facility was closed for deep cleaning.
The plant was originally slated to re-open on Monday, but those plans were pushed back to open Wednesday.
Now, two more plants across the state will shutter temporarily. Tyson Foods has confirmed another pork plant in Madison that employs 1,500 will idle, while Cargill is preparing to shut down a beef plant in Schuyler—that plant is Cargill’s first closure in Nebraska. The plant employs around 2,200 people and processes 4,500 head of cattle per day. Workers at the Cargill plant will be paid 36 hours per week while they are home.
The shutdowns come despite a recent executive order from President Trump to keep them operating at full capacity.
Tyson has not confirmed how many workers in Madison are sick—per communications officials, the company does not comment on cases at any of its plants. But officials at the Elkhorn Logan Valley Department of Public Health have reported at least 96 sick employees at the Tyson plant there.
Morgan Watchous, communications manager for Tyson Foods, said the company began scaling back production last Friday to begin testing all of its workers.
“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously,” Watchous said in an emailed statement.
The decision to close was ultimately made so the facility could be deep cleaned while workers are tested. Watchous added the company has contracted with a private company for testing, but will continue to work with local entities on their response to the outbreak.
“We are continuing to work closely with the Nebraska National Guard, state, and county health officials to ensure our efforts meet or exceed state and national guidelines," Watchous said.
The company has repeatedly highlighted its COVID-19 policies in statements, including taking employee temperatures, requiring facial coverings, and relaxing attendance policies. Tyson has not instituted paid COVID-19 leave for sick workers, but employees will be paid during the shutdown.
Cargill also hasn’t addressed the number of cases at the Schuyler plant. The East Central District Health Department has reported 241 total people sick with COVID-19 in Colfax county, but has not identified how many of them are workers.
It’s also unclear when the true scope of the plant’s outbreak will be revealed: local health officials recently said they are “very low” on COVID-19 tests and will only screen people with “extreme symptoms” right now.
And while Cargill is “encouraging employees to be tested” before its tentative reopening around May 18, the company did not say if it will pursue private testing for workers like Tyson has.