A group of Worthington activists said Wednesday they were “concerned and dismayed” to learn that a planned press conference about meat packing plant closures led by Rep. Collin Peterson and Gov. Tim Walz excluded meatpacking plant workers.
“Workers, organizers and residents are concerned and dismayed that the press conference does not include impacted workers and local public health professionals,” Cheniqua Johnson, an organizer speaking on behalf of workers, said in a statement.
Peterson is slated to speak at 1 p.m. from Worthington, the site of a COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS pork processing plant, which temporarily halted operations last week after at least 26 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Joining Peterson and Walz are hog farmers who are struggling to sell their livestock and say they will be forced to euthanize their hogs.
“Nobles County residents are appealing to Rep. Peterson and Gov. Walz to explore options that protect both workers and hog farmers,” Johnson said in the statement. “The best economic and public health policy right now must be rooted in public health practices that protect factory workers, their families and community.”
A spokesman for Peterson said the press conference was to address how officials “can provide the capacity to depopulate hogs to begin to ease the backup from the plant shutdowns.”
The spokesman disputed workers were excluded, saying they will be represented by UFCW Local 663 president Matt Utecht, who is slated to attend. Peterson “has always emphasized the need for PPE, testing and distancing for workers and inspectors alike to safeguard their health,” the spokesman said.
Nobles County has 615 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest per capita rate in Minnesota. Health officials said Tuesday that the infection rate higher was driven higher in recent days by the push to test more JBS employees since the outbreak was first detected.
COVID-19 has now sickened more than 2,200 meatpacking plant employees — many of them immigrants and refugees — and killed at least 17. The outbreaks in states like Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Colorado have led to the closure of at least 20 processing facilities, endangering the country’s meat supply.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat packing facilities as “critical infrastructure,” ordering them to remain open despite the outbreaks. The administration has pledged to provide more personal protective equipment for workers to ensure their safety, but Worthington JBS employees are skeptical that those measures alone will be insufficient. Some have called for production lines to be slowed.