FRANCONIA — There have not been any new coronavirus cases at the JBS Souderton beef packing plant since it reopened more than a month ago, according to the president of the union local representing workers at the plant.
The plant at Allentown and Lower roads in Franconia was closed for three weeks before reopening April 20. When the closure initially happened, the company said there would be a temporary production reduction following management members being sent home with flu-like symptoms.
Subsequent published reports said Enock Benjamin, a 70-year-old union steward at the plant, died in April from coronavirus-related causes. Benjamin's family has since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company.
Concerns have been raised nationwide about the conditions at meat plants, where the job often requires employees to work close together.
JBS Souderton was one of the first meat plants to close because of the virus, said Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers 1776.
"I never thought I'd say something like I was pleased to see a workplace closed, but under the circumstances, it was really important at that moment in time to close that plant," he said in a telephone interview on May 29.
"This company worked very closely with us during the closure and prior to the closure to implement things that would help keep people safer," Young said.
"We still have more to learn. We're gonna keep trying different things," he said. "I don't want to jinx ourselves, but right now, we're feeling pretty good that there have not been more infections."
When the plant closed, there were a little more than 1,400 union workers there, along with non-union administrative and management employees, Young previously said. The number of union members working there has increased to almost 1,500 since the plant reopened, he said.
"They brought on additional personnel to help with sanitation and cleaning and a lot of traffic cops, for lack of a better term," he said.
Instead of cleaning and sanitizing at the end of every shift, new protocols have added cleaning and sanitizing during the shifts, he said. The "traffic cops" keep people moving safely through the plant, he said.
"Where there's narrow corridors, we've got to limit traffic flow and direction flow," he said.
Shifts are now staggered, as are lunch and break periods, he said.
"All that requires the plant to operate a little slower, which means we have to operate more and bring in a few more people," Young said.
New safety precautions include spreading workers out, as well as putting in plexiglas barriers in cases in which the workers are less than six feet apart, he said.
"Everyone's gotta wear a mask," he said. Some wear a shield and a face mask, he said.
"A lot depends on where you work and what are the conditions in that part of the plant, and personal comfort, what works best for you," he said.
The precautions also include temperature checks and improved screening for coronavirus symptoms and overall health conditions, along with not using van pools and trying to reduce car pooling by workers, he said.
"All this is really the best practices and protocols you could implement as an employer," Young said. "Of all our employers, they've turned out to be one of the best to work with here at this plant to help keep people safe."
JBS USA is spending more than $200 million to support its employees and their communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the company said in a release.
The Colorado-headquartered company processes beef, pork and poultry products for sale to customers in more than 105 countries and employs more than 100,000 at more than 100 facilities, according to information on the company website.
“Since the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic, our priority has been and remains the safety of our team members providing food for all of us,” said Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO, in the mid-May release. “We recognize our responsibility as a food company during this crisis and we have continuously evolved our operations, based on the latest available guidance from experts, to improve our coronavirus preventive measures. We have already invested more than $100 million to enhance safeguards for our workforce and more than $50 million to reward our team members with thank-you bonuses. We are also excited to reaffirm our long-standing commitment to the rural towns and cities we call home across North America.”
JBS USA and Pilgrim's Pride, in which JBS is the majority shareholder, will also contribute more than $50 million to programs in the local communities where employees live and work, the release said.
“The investment will include donations to alleviate food insecurity, strengthen long-term community infrastructure and well-being, and support COVID-19 emergency response and relief efforts,” the release said.
The contributions are part of a recently announced $120 million global social commitment by JBS S.A., the release said. JBS USA is the North American arm of Brazil-based JBS S.A., which has more than 240,000 employees worldwide, more than 300 production facilities and customers in more than 150 countries, the JBS website says.
“JBS USA and Pilgrim’s have adopted more than $100 million in enhanced safety measures to keep their workplaces and team members safe, including increased sanitation and disinfection efforts, health screening and temperature checking, team member training, physical distancing, reduced line speeds and increased availability of personal protective equipment, including face masks and face shields. The companies have hired more than 1,000 new team members to conduct additional, around-the-clock sanitation and cleaning services, and to provide education, training and enforcement of COVID-19 preventive measures,” the release said. “The companies are also investing in innovative technologies to combat the potential spread of coronavirus in their facilities, including ultraviolet (UV) germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology to neutralize potential viruses in plant ventilation and air purification systems.”
Workers who are the most vulnerable to the virus have been removed from their workplace, with full pay and benefits, the company said.
“This has resulted in the removal of approximately 10 percent of the eligible workforce in the United States. The policy exceeds any recommended guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or any other official health authority,” the release said.
“I could not be more proud of how our team members have responded to this challenging time,” Nogueira said. “We salute the men and women who are supplying food to those who need it most and the local communities that have always sustained our business. We are not perfect and this has not been an easy time for any of us, but we are working tirelessly to keep our team members safe and provide food during this pandemic. We are all in this fight together.”
With Brazil now being hit hard by the coronavirus, relationships formed years ago between the union representing the JBS workers in the United States and the one in Brazil representing workers there are a help, Young said.
"This is a collaborative effort that is really global in nature," he said during the interview.
"I am concerned that as people are letting their guard down this summer we will see an increase in infection rates everywhere," Young wrote in response to an emailed question for this article. "For now we are continuing aggressive enforcement of protocols and in dialogue with company about a strategic testing program for late summer and fall to try to head off a spike in the fall and winter."