JBS voluntarily closing Worthington, Minnesota pork plant indefinitely due to COVID-19 cases

The expanse of JBS pork processing plant sits at the northeast corner of Worthington, Minn., September 4, 2019. (Photo by Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post) ( Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post/Getty Images )

JBS USA on Monday announced the indefinite closure of its Worthington, Minnesota pork production facility due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the plant.

On Friday, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663, which represents the nearly 2,000 workers at the pork plant, confirmed 19 cases of COVID-19 at the plant. By Saturday, that number grew to 20.

“We don’t make this decision lightly,” said a statement from Bob Krebs, President of JBS USA Pork. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.”

In his daily news conference Monday, Gov. Tim Walz confirmed that JBS's shutdown was voluntary and not a result of pressure from the state. 

NOBLES COUNTY A COVID-19 HOTSPOT

Nobles County, home to the JBS pork plant, now has 77 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the most confirmed cases per capita of any Minnesota county, with 3.5 positive tests per 1,000 residents. The next closest is Martin County with 2 cases per 1,000, Wilkin with 1.4 and Olmstead with 1.3 cases. By comparison, Hennepin County has 0.8 cases per 1,000 and Ramsey County has 0.4 cases per 1,000.

Of the first 41 completed investigations by the Minnesota Department of Health in Nobles County, 33 are employees of JBS pork plant and another six are family members of JBS workers.

All of the plant's 2,000 workers are being offered a test, but a challenge has been getting workers to come forward and get one.

Some of the workers may be in the U.S. illegally and fear deportation, Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. More than 40 languages are spoken in the plant, and that has slowed the communication process. She said health officials are looking for community assistance to explain that getting a test is "not punitive."

Nobles County has 3.5 cases per 1,000 residents, the biggest outbreak per capita in Minnesota.

The Worthington facility will wind down operations over the next two days with a minimal staff to get existing product into the food supply. All employees are being asked to follow Gov. Tim Walz’s stay at home order. The company will continue to pay its employees during the plant closure.

“As we all learn more about coronavirus, it is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing,” Krebs said. “We have taken aggressive actions to keep coronavirus out of our plant and keep this critical infrastructure facility operational. It is our hope that Governor Walz’s effort to implement more widespread community testing will help all of us better understand the measures we must all take to stop its potential spread. We must work together to defeat this common enemy.”

Dr. Susan Kline, Infectious Disease Expert at the University of Minnesota, said that while the number of confirmed cases as the plant grew quickly, it’s likely the virus has been around for a while.

“When I hear of clusters of infections like that, it makes me think that there’s something in that environment that is allowing one person with an infection to spread it to others,” she said. “If suddenly you have many people infected, it’s probably been there longer and it just wasn’t detected right away.” 

That’s why state leaders say they’re learning from the outbreak at JBS to figure out how to prevent this from happening at other manufacturing plants. 

“Our objective is to keep these plants open, however to keep them open in a manner that they do so to keep their workers safe,” said Nancy Lippink, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. 

The JBS plant in Worthington is Minnesota' largest pork processor, employing more than 2,000 people in Nobles County and processing 20,000 hogs per day.

Walz said some of the cases in Worthington are family members of workers at the Smithfield Foods plant across the border in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which has become a hot spot for infections. The Smithfield Foods plant closed indefinitely Sunday, April 12 after hundreds of workers tested positive for the coronavirus. 

STATE ISSUES GUIDANCE TO MEATPACKING INDUSTRY

The State of Minnesota has requested information from the meatpacking industry about the number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 along with other COVID-19 related spread information. The Minnesota Department of Health, Department of Labor and Industry and Department of Agriculture created health and safety guidelines for the meatpacking industry, whcih have been posted at www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_meatpacking_guidance.pdf.

The guidance addresses the following issues:

  • Employee and visitor screening;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting;
  • Distancing and production, work-shift schedules and work-break schedules;
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) and facial coverings;
  • Personnel hygiene and adequate handwashing facilities;
  • Communications and training for managers and workers;
  • COVID-19 Business Plan;
  • Working remotely; and
  • Employment and human resources items.

"The meatpacking sector is an important part of Minnesota's economy and a critical source for our food supply," Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said in a statement. "They have also been hot spots across the country for COVD-19 transmission. The following guidelines will help ensure Minnesota's meatpacking sector has appropriate measures in place to protect the safety of their employees and continue producing the food necessary to keep our state and nation fed."

JBS has implemented the following preventive measures:

  • Temperature testing all team members prior to entering facilities, including the use of hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging testing technology in all locations;
  • Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks, which are required to be worn at all times, to all team members;
  • Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including plexiglass dividers in key areas;
  • Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day;
  • Hiring dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor;
  • Removing vulnerable populations from facilities, offering full pay and benefits;
  • Requiring sick team members to stay home from work;
  • Waiving short-term disability waiting periods;
  • Relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick;
  • Providing free 100% preventative care to all team members enrolled in the company’s health plan;
  • Offering free LiveHealth Online services for team members enrolled in the company’s health plan that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost;
  • Educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work; and
  • Restricting access to facilities and not allowing visitors.