On Tuesday, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and signed an order requiring the nation's meat processing facilities to remain open as "critical infrastructure." The move came after several plants around the country, including three owned by JBS USA, closed or reduced production temporarily, after employees in the plants tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) or became ill in significant numbers. Two days before, John H. Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods wrote in an advertisement printed in the Washington Post and other newspapers that the meat supply in the nation was under threat from the plant closures.
For Moore County residents, the president's order put to rest rumors and speculation that have been swirling around the JBS Cactus plant since the beginning of the health crisis about whether or not the facility in Cactus would remain open or closed, though it did not settle the issue of the plant's role in Moore County's seemingly high per capita coronavirus infection rate. Governor Greg Abbott's executive order of March 31 closing non-essential businesses exempted food production facilities as essential. JBS Cactus, Moore County's largest employer by far with over 3000 employees, remained in operation. In recent weeks, as coronavirus testing ramped up, it became clear that counties near meat processing plants were having higher per capita rates of infection than even those in urban areas. Moore County, as of Wednesday, April 29, had 295 total test-confirmed cases, 160 of those active cases, 132 recoveries and 3 fatalities, giving it one of the highest per capita rates in the state.
The issue of JBS Cactus and the coronavirus in Moore County came to a head last week when a story appeared in the Texas Tribune that stated that the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) was conducting an investigation of the plant because of an outbreak of cases there. On Thursday, personnel of the DSHS toured the plant along with several local government officials. After the tour, DSHS spokesperson Lara Anton said the DSHS personnel "saw that they (JBS) had implemented our recommendations and noted that they were following all the best practices for an essential business to remain in operation." She also said the tour was at the invitation of JBS and had not been initiated by the state agency. Anton said there were 114 cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) associated with the Cactus plant, though not all were in Moore County. That figure, as of Wednesday, April 29, had climbed to 210 cases.
The Sunday before, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union announced that the union had come to an agreement with JBS to temporarily increase worker's pay by $4 per hour and "further strengthen safety measures in these plants." Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International said in the announcement, "We applaud JBS and our local UFCW Locals for coming to an agreement that recognizes the hard work and sacrifices of these brave men and women by giving them an additional $4 an hour and, more importantly, access to the personal protection equipment like masks, gloves, and face shields that they need to do their job safely."
On Tuesday, April 28, Tim Shellpeper head of JBS's fed beef unit and the man responsible for operations at four JBS facilities, including the JBS Cactus plant, and Manny Guerrero, general manager of the Cactus plant, met with the News-Press and discussed worker safety, the difficulty of operating in a constantly changing environment, and the steps they say they have taken to keep workers and the community safe while continuing to produce food for the approximately 10 million people a day who eat the beef that comes from the JBS Cactus plant. They responded to rumors and critics and pushed back against some of the social media posts across the community that, they say, have painted an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the company and its response to the coronavirus
"One of the things that I like to talk about is that these folks that are coming in here every day … we owe these folks, because they are on the front lines of feeding our country, and it is incumbent upon us to do all these things we are doing to keep them safe," said Shellpeper. "That increase in their wages was frankly an expression of our appreciation for what they do every day and the environment that they do it."
Shellpeper acknowledged that JBS Cactus is not operating at full capacity and that some employees have left out of fear of the virus. "We are fighting two enemies here: one is the coronavirus, and the other is fear. Are we operating at our maximum capacity? No, we are not." A number of employees were identified early on as "at risk" and sent home with pay to wait out the crisis. Others have taken vacation time or a leave of absence. "All of these people are an important part of the team. When you take them out, you are going to lose some productivity. We are operating every day of the week that we normally do, but it has had some impact."
The company has sought advice from outside epidemiologists from the University of Nebraska and elsewhere and followed the CDC guidelines in fashioning a response to the virus, said Shellpeper. "We have developed a program over the last few months that is becoming more robust." He says the company welcomes suggestions, and he points to changes, such as lengthening the dividers between work stations, that the company implemented at the suggestion of DSHS officials.
Shellpeper acknowledged that the company's efforts to deal with the coronavirus have been a work in progress and that he and other officials have had to learn and adapt along the way. "There were lead times on some of this. There was a while there where we were learning." Wearing hospital-style masks in company facilities is now mandatory for everyone at all times. The company initiated getting face masks before it was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), according to Nikki Richardson of JBS corporate communications. The masks were not easy to come by in the initial days of the crisis. "That was a challenge at first, but we have been able to develop those pipelines," said Shellpeper. "Whether it was the masks or those infrared cameras … all that took time to get into place."
The infrared cameras take thermal images, and they greet everyone entering the plant now. Shellpeper says that one of their primary goals is to keep the virus out of the plant as much as possible, so they have locked down the facility to anyone not coming to work or coming for some rare special reason. Those who do enter the plant walk through disinfectant powder to reach a window where an employee asks several health questions. An infrared camera checks for fever at the door. No one gets in with a fever.
Dealing with the virus is complicated. Not everyone spreading the virus exhibits fever or other symptoms. Shellpeper says that is why all employees now have personal protective equipment, and the company has tried to recreate the work place to keep workers six feet apart where possible. Halls are divided so that foot traffic goes one way. Hand sanitizer stations are at every internal door. Workers in full protective gear and blue vests walk around spraying sanitizer on surfaces that people routinely touch. Rooms are misted at night with sanitizer. Employees in production areas wear a mask, hard hat with safety face shield, hair net, white frock, boots, and plastic shin guards to keep material from getting into the tops of boots. The floor is covered with sanitizing foam. Work stations have been spread out, where possible, and workers are divided by plastic shields. In the cafeteria, plastic dividers keep employees separated from each other while they eat, and the company has set up tents outside to handle overflow from the cafeteria and provide additional room to spread out.
JBS busses 400 employees from Amarillo to work in Cactus. Managers have cut the number of employees riding each bus in half. Everyone is required to wear a mask and is checked for fever before entering the bus.
Both Guerrero and Shellpeper say implementing the changes has been a challenge that has required altering management and communications practices. Large meetings are out. "You have to adapt, learn, and develop other processes," said Shellpeper. Among other things, managers now use a cell phone app that translates messages from English and sends them out to JBS's multilingual, multicultural workforce in a variety of languages.
Shellpeper says early on the company identified employees who are at risk of a serious case of COVID-19 and sent them home with pay. Employees who become sick are also sent home with pay, and all employees are encouraged to stay home, if they feel ill.
Guerrero pushes back against any idea that the company has required people to work sick or told workers to not tell anyone they were ill. And, he says, no one was told not to post on social media. "We have never told anybody, 'Don't tell anybody you got it here,' or anything like that," he said.
According to Guerrero, once the company is notified by DSHS that an employee has tested positive, company personnel investigate to see who the infected employee associated with, and those persons too are also sent home with pay. "Our communication has been, 'You don't have to let anybody know. We will notify those people ourselves.' " DSHS also does contact tracing and notifications. Moore County Hospital District personnel quarantine and monitor those who are either ill with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or suspected of having the illness. Guerrero says company personnel check on them daily as well.
"We have a very robust health care program here," added Shellpeper.
Both Shellpeper and Guerrero acknowledge that some of the work at the plant can be difficult, but they say the pay is good, $16.20 per hour to start, before the temporary raise, and they say there are many workers who stay and work for long periods, some beginning at the bottom and working their way into management. The company offers an incentive for employees to purchase their own homes, and it has been involved in a number of local charities that benefit employees and the general community alike.
Shellpeper and Guerrero say they are doing everything they can to keep employees and the community as safe as possible and continue to produce food for the public. They say they are in constant contact with state, federal, and local government officials and are willing to do what is necessary.
"One of the things we do as an essential business … we can't work from home. We make things, as so much of the midwest does, with that comes a responsibility … we have to do these things as a community to keep our workforce safe and keep the country fed," said Shellpeper.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 540 represents the workers at the JBS Cactus plant. When asked for comment, the union provided the following statement: "UFCW Local 540 continues to be dedicated to the safety of their hard-working members, including those in Cactus. We're closely monitoring the situation and have worked constantly to improve conditions inside the plant, including multiple layers of personal protective equipment, social distancing wherever possible and extra pay for these essential workers."