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Meatpacking workers often absent after order to reopen

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CHICAGO/WASHINGTON – Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL] is missing about a third of its employees at a South Dakota pork plant because they are quarantined or afraid to return to work after a severe coronavirus outbreak, according to the workers’ union.

Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) was forced to briefly close its Storm Lake, Iowa plant – a month after U.S. President Donald Trump’s April 28 order telling meatpackers to stay open – as worker absences hobbled its slaughter operations.

Nationwide, 30% to 50% of meatpacking employees were absent last week, said Mark Lauritsen, a vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

More than a dozen meatpacking workers, union leaders and advocates told Reuters that many employees still fear getting sick after losing confidence in management during coronavirus outbreaks in April and May. Absenteeism varies by plant, and exact data is not available, but some workers’ unwillingness to return poses a challenge to an industry still struggling to restore normal meat output.

Daily pork production was down by as much as 45% in late April as some 20 plants closed because of outbreaks. Production has rebounded since plants reopened last month in response to Trump’s order, but remains down from before the pandemic. The UFCW union, which represents about 80% of U.S. pork and beef production, told Reuters that major pork plants are running at about 75% capacity.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that processors slaughtered about 438,000 hogs on Friday, down 12% from the peak before the pandemic.

The USDA and the White House declined to comment for this story. Tyson, Smithfield and other meatpackers say they have taken extensive safety measures, at great cost, to protect workers.

Meat companies have prevented the pace of slaughter from falling further by bolstering kill lines with employees from other operations that require more labor, such as butchering and deboning. As a result, meatpackers are producing fewer products that require extra work – such as boneless hams – and throwing away items like offal that otherwise would be sold, Lauritsen said.

The cure for absenteeism is a safe job at a decent wage, Lauritsen said.

“Right now” he said, “there are employees that don’t see the safe job part.”

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