OMAHA, Neb. — Meatpacking workers across the country have started receiving coronavirus vaccines and thousands more will have a chance to get their shots this week, offering some peace of mind in an industry that was ravaged by COVID-19 a year ago.
“There’s a level of relief to know they are finally getting the vaccination, and maybe we can start taking steps back to normal — not just at the work site but just in their life in general,” said Mark Lauritsen, who was meeting with workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, Monday about their chance to get the vaccine this week.
Lauritsen, who is the United Food and Commercial Workers union’s vice president of food processing and meatpacking, said that interest in the vaccine is high among workers after the industry took such a heavy toll from the virus. He expects — based on a union survey and the experience at the first couple plants where vaccines were offered — that roughly 70% of workers who get the chance to be vaccinated will get a shot.
Last spring, major outbreaks at a number of meatpacking plants — where workers often stand should-to-shoulder on production lines — forced them to close temporarily because of the number of illnesses and to install additional safety measures. Across the industry, production fell as low at 60% of capacity in April at the height of the plant closures before rebounding to near normal levels over the summer.
The UFCW union, which represents roughly 80% of the nation’s beef and pork workers and 33% of its poultry workers, estimates that at least 22,000 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed, and 132 have died of COVID-19.
The major meatpacking companies — JBS, Cargill, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods — say a number of states plan to begin vaccinating meat plant workers this week, including in Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Michigan. In some of those states, only workers aged 65 or older are able to receive the vaccine at this point but several of those states are conducting mass vaccination events at plants.
Company officials and the union have been encouraging workers to get the shots.
“We have been focused on doing everything we can to prioritize our essential workforce in state vaccination plans across the country,” JBS CEO Andre Nogueira said.
Illinois was one of the first places to offer the vaccines to entire plants of workers last month. JBS and Tyson said workers at two of their plants in that state are due to receive their second required shots of the vaccine soon.
Tyson said many of its 13,000 workers in Iowa will have a chance to get vaccinated this week when the shots are delivered in Columbus Junction, Council Bluffs, Independence, Perry, Sioux City, Storm Lake and Waterloo.
JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride said roughly 8,500 of their workers in eight states will have the chance to get the vaccine this week. One of the biggest vaccination clinics will be held at the end of this week at a major JBS beef plant near the company’s headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, where more than 3,000 people work.
That Greeley plant was one of the early hot spots during the pandemic. Six deaths and nearly 500 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the plant since last March, according to Kim Cordova, president of the local UFCW union that represents the plant’s workers.
“They have been on the front lines since day one and now they will finally have the opportunity to access the vaccine,” Cordova said.
Even after the vaccinations, meat companies will have to continue to rely on the safety measures they took since last spring. After the outbreaks began, meat producers tried to protect workers by instituting temperature checks and wellness screening, installing plastic dividers between workstations, increasing plant sanitization, conducting random virus testing, and requiring masks and other protective gear. In some cases, companies upgraded their plant ventilation systems.