MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In the last few months, thousands of Minnesota’s food processing workers have been sick with COVID-19. In some places, like at JBS in Worthington, plants temporarily closed as companies scrambled to better protect their workers.

WCCO took a look at where the COVID-19 numbers stand now, and the precautions on the production line seem to be paying off.

Matt Utecht, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union Local 663, represents nearly 2,000 employees at JBS.

“We’re about four weeks out from the reopen and the number of COVID cases in the facility are minimal,” Utecht said.

At one point in April, nearly 500 workers at Worthington’s JBS pork processing plant tested positive for COVID-19. An employee in his 50s died from the virus. However, the numbers have dropped dramatically to just a few cases since the plant was again allowed to partially reopen on May 6.

“There was a lot of apprehension on the memberships part of what that might look like,” Utecht said.

After the initial scare, Utecht says it took some time for employees to want to come back. JBS went from 900 workers on each of its two shifts to 150 during the partial shutdown. Now, it’s between 600 and 700 workers per as production ramps back up.

Where workers once stood shoulder to shoulder, 6 feet of social distancing is now in place along the production line, similar to what Jennie-O processing plants in Willmar and Melrose did after dozens of their employees tested positive. On Thursday, a company spokesperson says only 10 of their 2,100 team members at the two locations have tested positive and that production has resumed after a voluntary pause.

But, in Austin at the Hormel Foods plant COVID cases are on the rise. A couple of dozen cases has grown to more than 200 infected workers. That’s why Mower County will host a free mass testing event this weekend at the fairgrounds for the entire community, another reminder of the risks that still exists at workplaces across the state.

“COVID hasn’t gone away and it sounds like it won’t anytime soon. So our workers on a daily basis are still in harm’s way,” Utecht said.

Since March 1, Minnesota’s OSHA program has received nearly 350 complaints from workers concerning COVID-19 and their working conditions. The state performed 45 onsite inspections related to the pandemic. The remaining complaints were handled through a formal letter process.

Frank Vascellaro

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