HYRUM – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson of Salt Lake City has weighed into the COVID-19 controversy at the JBS meat-packing plant in Hyrum, agreeing with workers that paid sick-time is crucial to containing the coronavirus outbreak at that facility.
That view is shared by James McLaughlin, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union that represents JBS employees.
“We’re now seeing workers from across the spectrum of industries banding together to advocate for paid sick days,” McLaughlin explained during a Zoom meeting with Peterson and running mate Karina Brown of Nibley on June 15. “When you think about what’s going on right now with COVID-19, that’s critical to our ability to try to stop the spread of this disease. I’m talking about paying people to stay home so that they don’t spread the virus.”
The JBS plant is the epicenter of a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Cache County, with more than 200 out of 1,400 employees there having tested positive for the disease as of early June.
About 60 masked JBS employees demonstrated in downtown Logan on June 9, demanding the plant be closed for a week for sanitizing and that they be paid while out of work.
Peterson said that a virologist from Brigham Young University had advised him the environment of a typical meat packing plant is a “perfect storm” for the transmission of the coronavirus.
Those ideal conditions for viral infections, Peterson explains, are that “… people are doing heavy physical labor, breathing deeply due to exertion, working in close quarters, in a chilled environment that could keep the virus alive for an extended period of time.”
JBS Spokesperson Nikki Richardson said the plant has implemented a wide of range of measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in its workforce.
McLaughlin acknowledged the multi-national firm’s efforts, noting that anyone testing positive is sent home for 14 days. JBS employees are now separated by transparent shields, break areas have been rearranged to facilitate social distancing and improved sanitizing protocols have been implemented.
“But manufacturing typically requires workers to come together in confined places to push out products …” the union president noted. “It’s not just JBS; it’s a problem for all these type of workplaces. We have to slow down the pace of production lines so that people have a chance to get out of each other’s way while working.”
JBS has also instituted daily health checks for its workers, McLaughlin added. That includes taking each worker’s temperature when they arrive, asking questions about any symptoms they might have experienced and asking if they might have been exposed to COVID-19 at home or in the community.
“I’ve heard horror stories about people trying to evade those checks by taking Tylenol on the way to the job to lower their body temperatures,” he said. “That defeats the whole intent of daily health checks, of course. So, we have to take away the incentive to do that by providing paid sick time.”
Peterson also advocates for employers to be required to provide plant workers, like those at JBS, with “hospital-grade personal protective equipment.”
McLaughlin agreed that would be ideal, but countered that even some hospitals didn’t have that kind of gear when the pandemic began in mid-March.
“We just … didn’t have access to hospital grade PPE, or N95 masks or transparent face shields,” McLaughlin admitted. “We’re finally starting to get that kind of equipment being available to industry now. But when this thing started, you couldn’t get that kind of equipment. We struggled with that problem in every industry where our union represents workers and I suspect the same was true in every industry in America.”
As the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Chris Peterson will face off against the Republican candidate who emerges from the GOP primary balloting on June 30.