The JBS pork plant in Worthington will reopen Wednesday after being closed for processing for two weeks, a union representing workers there said in a letter to members.
The plant, where nearly 500 workers have tested positive for coronavirus, has not been slaughtering hogs for processing since April 21.
But under President Donald Trump's order requiring meat processors to remain open during the pandemic, the plant is starting back up. The plant typically slaughters about 21,000 hogs a day and is a key buyer of Minnesota hogs.
Last Wednesday, the plant opened with a small crew to euthanize hogs that farmers could not afford to keep.
Matt Utecht, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents more than 1,800 workers at the plant, said in a letter to members that the union "has been hard at work ensuring that reopening the plant involves a commitment to enhanced safety guidelines."
JBS USA, the American branch of the Brazilian meat giant JBS S.A., has instituted a long list of safety measures. They include infrared temperature screening, face masks for everyone, plexiglass barriers, rearranged locker rooms, face shields for employees who cannot be 6 feet apart and floor-to-ceiling sanitation by an outside contractor.
As of Monday, 490 JBS workers at the Worthington plant had tested positive for COVID-19, up from 239 last Tuesday, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Extensive testing of workers has occurred in the past two weeks.
The plant is the hub of a big outbreak in Nobles County. With 1,011 COVID-19 diagnoses as of Monday, Nobles has by far the most per capita cases of any Minnesota county and is second only to Hennepin County in raw numbers.
The Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls started to reopen Monday, with workers filing into the plant, the Associated Press reported. More than 800 workers at the plant have been infected with the virus, and it was shuttered for over two weeks.
A spokesman for Virginia-based Smithfield said COVID-19 tests are available to plant workers "on a voluntary basis" at Washington High School in Sioux Falls.
What both meatpacking plants must contend with is high levels of absenteeism, as workers steer clear of their shifts out of fear of infection. JBS confirmed "increased absenteeism" at a pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, last week, but it did not respond to an inquiry about the Worthington plant on Monday.
Nekessa Opoti, the Twin Cities-based founder of the Black Immigrant Collective who has been in touch with workers at the plant in Worthington, said workers are frustrated and scared.
"The week before they shut down, people stopped showing up to work," Opoti said. "A lot of them have already tested positive for COVID, so there's just this fear that exists."
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003