WILLMAR — Minnesota is stepping up its efforts to protect employees of the state’s meat processing facilities.
On Monday, following the announcement of the indefinite closure of the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington and a similar situation at a nearby pork processing plant in South Dakota, a new set of guidelines for Minnesota’s meatpacking industry was released by three state agencies.
The new information also applies to turkey processing facilities, like Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar.
Last week, Jennie-O President Steve Lykken said the company was implementing a long list of practices to reduce the chances of an outbreak of COVID-19 at its plants.
He said efforts were being made to increase the screening of employees by doing temperature checks before they start shifts, staggering of shifts and break times, providing masks, increasing sanitizing of the facilities and communicating with employees about the need to stay home — with sick pay — if they are ill.
Nancy Leppink, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said Minnesota’s meatpacking industry is an important part of the state’s economy and a critical source for our food supply.
"They have also been hot spots across the country for COVD-19 transmission,” she said in the statement announcing the guidelines for the meatpacking industry.
The multi-page guidance, which was released jointly by the state departments of Health, Agriculture and Labor and Industry, is designed to help protect worker safety and keep meatpacking plants and processing facilities open, according to the statement.
It includes specific details on screening employees and visitors, cleaning and disinfecting facilities, how to implement distance guidelines, adjusting work and break times to avoid congregating in areas and requiring that masks be provided by employers and worn by employees.
There’s also language in the guidelines that asks employers to relax attendance rules and to modify worker incentive pay so employees will be encouraged to stay home when ill and a statement that says employers should clarify that “discrimination against workers for any reason will not be tolerated and must be reported.”
"It is important we find ways to address COVID-19 and limit its spread in any setting where it could spread quickly from person to person,” said Jan Malcolm, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, in the statement.
She said the agencies are working together to protect employees and communities where they live.
The 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,” Leppink said.
Thom Petersen, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Minnesota's meatpacking sector is “an important market for Minnesota pig and poultry farmers and ensuring the sector can safely operate in these unprecedented times is critical.”
The West Central Tribune sought comment from Jennie-O on Monday regarding COVID-19 but did not receive a response by deadline.