WILLMAR — Officials at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar say they are optimistic extra efforts they are implementing to protect employees from the coronavirus could prevent the type of outbreak that has temporarily shut down a large pork processing facility in South Dakota.
Starting next week, employees at the Jennie-O processing plants will have their temperatures taken when reporting to work. Fever is one of the most common symptoms of the COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
That new procedure comes on top of a long list of additional safety measures that Jennie-O, which is owned by Hormel Foods, has initiated since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, said Steve Lykken, president of Jennie-O.
The company provides face masks and other personal protective face coverings and is accomplishing social distancing by staggering start times and break times and using areas outside the normal cafeteria spaces for breaks, he said.
Besides regular routines to sanitize food production areas, which Lykken said “were always and continue to be significant,” enhanced sanitization procedures are taking place in offices, break rooms, locker rooms and restrooms — by increasing the number of available alcohol-based hand sanitizers along with other measures, including ongoing education.
“Team members are performing routine sanitization of all high-touch surfaces and are conducting additional cleaning of these areas on a weekly basis during non-production hours,” Lykken said.
Jennie-O, which has about 1,000 employees in Willmar, has nurses on staff but employees are encouraged to stay home if they don’t feel well.
“If someone has symptoms, they are told to stay home,” Lykken said.
“They receive 100% of their pay if they stay home. This is industry leading and the right thing to do for our team members,” he said. “We would never ask a team member to report to work if they are feeling unwell.”
While a plan is in place in case an outbreak would force the plant has to be closed, Lykken said it’s hoped that will not be necessary.
“We remain hopeful that we will not have to pause our plant operations,” he said. “But if we do, we have a plan in place to ensure that our operational excellence and animal welfare and stewardship are maintained to our levels of expectation.”
While following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, Lykken said, the key to prevention is to educate employees about COVID-19 and to provide regular updates about safety procedures.
Lykken said employees are “doing such a great job adhering to added requirements and are being diligent as we face this challenging time together.”
Lykken said the company is also helping support local communities by purchasing meals from local businesses and has made more than $1 million in cash and product donations to local food pantries and national organizations.
This Friday, Hormel is hosting a virtual concert on its YouTube channel featuring Chris Kroeze, the Barron, Wisconsin, man who was the runner-up on the 15th season of "The Voice." A similar virtual concert was held last week but the event this Friday will also include some "surprise" guests, said Lykken.
And Carris Health announced Wednesday that Jennie-O had donated 8,800 N95 respirator masks for health care workers in Willmar and the region. Read more about that donation here.