WORTHINGTON, Minn. — A week before JBS idled its pork plant here, it was clear that meatpacking plants had become clusters of the virus.

Sixty miles away, the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls had shut down with nearly 300 workers testing positive for COVID-19. Plants in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Colorado also closed because of outbreaks.

But until April 20, JBS was running the Worthington plant, which can slaughter as many as 21,000 hogs a day, at full tilt.

Van-loads of workers commuted from Sioux Falls every day, some of them apparently sick. Employees skipped shifts out of illness or fear. Dozens of workers staged a walkout over lunch to demand that the company slow production lines. The plant's head of human resources abruptly resigned.

"That was my rub against the company. Come on guys, there's a trend here," said Matt Utecht, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which claims 1,850 workers at the plant as members.

"You could see in advance how these plants were dropping, one at a time," he said. "The problem was, at these plants that were closing, they weren't making any changes. They were just running full throttle and business as usual."

It's a story that played out at meatpacking plants across the United States: Despite mounting evidence that meat processing workers were especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, plant managers kept lines running fast. Not until they faced rampant absenteeism and case counts in the hundreds did they scale back production.

Now, roughly a quarter of the nation's hog slaughterhouse capacity is down, and hog farmers across the country are either euthanizing pigs or thinking about it. JBS in Worthington and Smithfield in Sioux Falls, two of the largest buyers of Minnesota hogs and together representing nearly one-tenth of the nation's pork production capacity, have reopened but are far from full strength.

About 630 workers at JBS in Worthington have tested positive for COVID-19. One, a man in his 60s with underlying conditions, died from it. As a result of the outbreak, Nobles County now has the second-highest number of test-positive COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, after Hennepin County.

JBS USA, which owns the plant in Worthington, is the American arm of Brazilian meat giant JBS S.A. The company has made major changes to improve the safety at the Worthington site, especially since the shutdown.

Plexiglass barriers have been constructed between workers on production lines, in the plant cafeteria and even in hallways with heavy traffic. Temperature screening at the plant entrance, vigorous daily sanitation, personal protective equipment including face shields and masks and ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations are now the norm, workers say.

Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman, said workers have been paid a $4 hourly bonus since April 20. And anyone over 60, pregnant, on dialysis or receiving cancer treatment — a group that collectively is nearly 10% of the workforce — has been placed on leave with full pay and benefits, he said.

Asked about the vans of workers arriving from Sioux Falls, Bruett said "we currently do not have commuting incentives for people who drive from Sioux Falls," and before the shutdown of the JBS plant, those commuters were interviewed and "anyone living with a Smithfield employee was put out on paid leave for 14 days."

But in interviews with a dozen meatpacking workers and their spouses last week in Worthington, several themes emerged. They believe the company downplayed the threat of the virus. They say its spread was accelerated by employees commuting from Sioux Falls in JBS-provided transportation. And JBS' policies on COVID-19 sick pay and returning to work are applied unevenly, with many fearing that sick people are still going to work.

Maria Echeverria, who works on the second shift and has been at the plant for five years, said managers insisted for days that only one employee was sick with COVID-19, even while it was clear to the workers that more than 30 had it.

"They weren't giving us any information," Echeverria said of the time before the shutdown.

Conditions were bad enough, Echeverria said, that she helped organize a walkout on April 16. About 60 workers left the plant during lunch to demand the plant close, or at least slow down, she said.

"We wanted them to slow down the lines because it was impossible to practice social distancing," Echeverria said. "They refused to do anything."

Echeverria has not been back to the plant since April 17. She's been on leave without pay for the last two weeks, but she said she won't return until she feels safe.

"People who are sick are still coming to work," she said. "Quite frankly, I'm afraid."

Paleh, a woman from Burma who is Karen by ethnicity, said she and her husband moved to Worthington in 2008 so he could work at the plant. He makes $18.60 per hour deboning hams and they have four children.

She and her husband, and three of their kids, are sick with COVID-19, she said. She asked that her last name not be used out of fear that her husband might lose his job.

"They did not stop working," said the woman, of the weeks before the shutdown. "Supervisors told them 'Nobody has coronavirus. You don't have to worry. Keep working.'?"

Her husband eventually tested positive on May 5. Someone from the plant called in recent days to ask him to return to work.

"I told the receptionist who called us, 'I can't let my husband go back to work and spread out the disease to people,'?" Paleh said.

Adding to her anxiety, she is required to call into the company every day her husband is sick to avoid disciplinary action, including possible termination, she said. Yet the human resources department doesn't necessarily answer the phone.

"I tried to call them today but nobody answered," she said.

One employee, a 66-year old man named Jesus, said he felt the company did try to keep workers safe at the plant. First it provided hand sanitizer and sent sick workers home, he said, before it ultimately installed plexiglass barriers and started screening employees.

"JBS did everything possible," he said.

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Jesus, who declined to give his last name, said the plant took his temperature and it was running high. He left work and quarantined himself in a small empty trailer he owns a few miles from work and learned two days later he had the virus. For five days he was severely ill — hot with a fever, weak, passing blood in his stool. At one point he reached for his bathtub as he was standing up, lost consciousness and spent hours passed out on his bathroom floor.

"I called my son so he would know where I was in case I didn't answer the phone," he said.

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Many of the workers who spoke to The Minneapolis Star Tribune said they were frustrated that the company hasn't been talking with them, checking on them or sharing more information about when it would be safe for them to return to work. There is confusion over their pay.

Several workers said they were worried they had lost an advocate when Len Bakken, the plant's head of human resources, suddenly quit in the days before the shutdown.

Interviewed at his home near Windom, Bakken declined to explain why he quit his job.

"I'm not going to throw the company under the bus," he said. "They did a lot of good things."

He starts a new job Monday at Comfrey Farm Prime Pork in Windom, Minn., a smaller pork processor. That company is owned by Glen Taylor, the Mankato businessman whose other businesses include the Star Tribune.

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In the days before the JBS plant closed, one woman, Esmeralda, said she had never seen her husband come home so scared. He supervises employees on a production line. He loves his job. He loves his workers. He has diabetes and knew that if he caught the virus, it could kill him.

"He was told that he was essential and had to be there, so he kept going and going," said Esmeralda, who asked that her last name not be published. "Too many people were on the lines coughing, so he knew something was up."

He started to feel sick a day after the plant officially shut down, when workers were helping to wind the operation down, then tested positive for the virus. He isolated himself in a room at home while his wife and daughter left food for him at the door. He had an extremely high fever and dangerous blood sugar levels. Esmerelda thought he might not make it. But he was lucky, she said — he's slowly getting better.

"My husband says they are doing everything possible, yes, but they are still letting people who are infected go to work in the plant," Esmerelda said. "That's not right."

© 2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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