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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are demanding changes at a Stearns County poultry processing plant.

Employees and union allies protested what they call unsafe conditions outside of Pilgrim’s Pride Poultry in Cold Spring Monday, and they did so in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

READ MORE: Union Representing Minnesota Meatpacking Plants Speaks Out Against Opening

Ten days ago, after walking off the job, Mohammed Burale says he confirmed positive for COVID-19. He says he was told to report back to Pilgrim’s Pride on Sunday.

(credit: CBS)

“Management wanted us to stay on the line and still expected us to work when some of us were sick,” Burale said.

He is feeling better, but feels the plant’s working environment is unsafe.

“I expect they will fire anyone that doesn’t report back to work,” Burale said.

He took part in Monday’s rally that many of his coworkers couldn’t attend because they’re too sick. Several have also walked off the job. There’s no union that represents the workers, but they have a united message.

READ MORE: Some Blaming Meatpacking Workers, Not Plants, For COVID-19’s Spread

“We’re demanding the company close down and disinfect the workplace and do a mass testing, and re-open again,” Burale said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has an open investigation into the plant. The Minnesota Department of Health has also toured the plant and given operators specific guidance.

Mohammed Burale (credit: CBS)

A spokesperson for Pilgrim’s Pride tells WCCO the company is doing everything it can to keep the virus out of its facility, and would not operate if it didn’t feel it was safe. They are following all guidance from OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including temperature checks, and requiring anyone who is sick to stay home. Below is their full statement:

The health and safety of our team members remains our highest priority, and we have implemented a wide of range of measures to combat coronavirus. We know some people are scared and anxious, and we are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facility.

Today, every Pilgrim’s facility temperature checks 100% of the workforce before they enter a facility. We also provide and require face masks to be worn at all times on company property.

Pilgrim’s has had team members test positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe.

We are working with the local health department and communicating directly with our team members. At our Cold Spring facility, we are following all CDC and OSHA issued guidance around safety and social distancing, and we’re doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for our team members who are providing food for us all during these unprecedented times.

We have implemented numerous preventive measures at our Cold Spring facility that include:

    • Temperature testing all team members prior to entering facilities, including the use of hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging testing technology.
    • Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks that are required to be worn at all times.
    • Increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including plastic dividers in common areas and on the production floor.
    • Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts and breaks.
    • Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day.
    • Hiring dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor.
    • Removing vulnerable populations from our facilities, offering full pay and benefits.
    • Requiring sick team members to stay home from work.
    • Waiving short-term disability waiting periods.
    • Providing free 100% preventative care to all team members enrolled in the company’s health plan.
    • Offering free LiveHealth Online services for team members enrolled in the company’s health plan that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost.
    • Educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work.
    • Restricting access to facilities and not allowing visitors.

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David Schuman