AUSTIN, Minn. — Since the pandemic began earlier this year, an estimated 60 workers at the Quality Pork Processors plant and 25 workers at the Hormel Foods plant in Austin have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the president of the union that represents the workers.
The reporting of the new infection figures comes as Mower County has seen a surge in new cases within the past week. The Minnesota Department of Health reported 206 confirmed cases in the county on Monday, a doubling of the 112 cases reported four days ago.
The data on Hormel workers represents a five-fold jump in coronavirus cases from the five reported two weeks ago, but still a fraction of its 1,850 employees. The infection cases at Quality Pork are the first to be reported on. Quality Pork employs 1,180 people.
The figures, revealed in an interview with Richard Morgan, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Union-Local 9, the union that represents employees at both plants, show that meat-processing plants remain in a struggle to protect their workers despite the extraordinary measures the plants are taking.
"Everybody is nervous," Morgan said when asked about the workers' comfort level. "They're front-line people. They got to feed the country. They're doing everything they can to do that. They're trying to stay as safe as they can."
Some of the workers who missed work because of illness have returned to work.
Morgan said that Hormel has divided its Austin plant into a dozen different zones to achieve as much social distancing as possible. At Quality Pork, "every touch surface," such as hand and door rails, are cleaned hourly. Workers at both plants wear masks or face shields, and temperature checks are taken at doors as workers enter.
In an interview Friday, Mower County Health and Human Services Division Manager Pam Kellogg said the department has worked extensively with Hormel "working through their plans."
"They are very prepared, doing a lot of education with their employees, providing PPE. We have some cases in each of the plants, but if you want anything specific, I would suggest you reach out directly to Hormel," Kellogg said.
Morgan credited Hormel with efforts to contain the virus and protect workers. He said Hormel had seven to 10 new cases from Thursday to Monday.
Still unclear is how the workers became infected, whether through working shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers, in social situations outside work, at home, or in other settings.
Morgan said the effort to protect workers at the plant has been a top concern of his and four full-time stewards, two at each plant, for the past eight to 10 weeks.
Meat-processing plants have become the front lines in the battle to contain COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Many recent outbreaks have occurred at such plants outside the Twin Cities, Minnesota Public Radio reports. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.
Quality Pork is where the animals are slaughtered, and the Hormel plant is where the meat is further processed.
Meat-processing plants outside Mower County have been hit harder by the coronavirus.
In southwestern Minnesota's Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington's JBS pork plant, about one in 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Tuesday, there were 1,478 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, people of color, immigrants and people in low-income families are disproportionately employed in meatpacking plants. Only 8% of Minnesota's population is foreign-born. Almost one half (44.4%) of meatpacking workers are Hispanic, and one quarter (25.2%) are black.
Morgan called the workers at Quality Pork and Hormel "the hardest-working people in America."
"They're trying to feed America during hard times," Morgan said.