Meat processors mobilize to mitigate COVID-19 risks

Some of Canada’s largest meat processing companies are publicly announcing their COVID-19 response measures in an effort to offer reassurance and transparency to the public and others in the food supply chain.

While minimizing the human health risk associated with having a large number of employees working at a single facility is the primary concern, an outbreak of the disease among employees or government inspectors at a packing plant has been cited as a major financial risk for ranchers and livestock producers.

Canadian processors, including Maple Leaf Foods, Olymel, and HyLife, have issued public statements or letters over the last few days outlining the steps they’re taking to mitigate the risk to their employees, as well as the food supply.

Like most other employers, meat-processing companies say they’ve implemented the recommended quarantine and isolation protocols, and are having as many employees as possible work from home. But while packing plants are increasingly automated, they still require large numbers of people to operate, so all three of the companies mentioned above say they are modifying schedules and reallocating office space to maximize the “social distancing” among employees who normally share common areas, such as locker rooms, cafeterias, washrooms, and transportation shuttles.

“Olymel has mobilized all of its HR staff to support its employees through this crisis. This mobilization will continue for as long as necessary,” says Réjean Nadeau, president and CEO of Olymel. “Like the population and the governments, we recognize the essential nature of the work our employees are doing. Despite the difficult circumstances, they are working hard to produce safe and healthy food that the population needs.”

Several companies have reportedly started taking temperatures of employees when they arrive for their shifts. Both HyLife and Olymel say they’ve recently hired medical experts to advise their companies on COVID-19 preparedness and prevention.

Maple Leaf and Olymel have also announced they’re boosting pay for hourly employees. Olymel says it started paying a fixed bonus of two dollars per hour to hourly employees in its pork and poultry operations as of March 23, while Maple Leaf announced on the same day that it is providing hourly employees with an $80/week support payment, in addition to regular and overtime pay.

As part of the financial support, the companies say they are trying to reduce the reason for people to come to work when they shouldn’t.

“We are providing additional payments to employees who are required to stay home while ill or self-isolating as incentive to ‘do the right thing’ and not feel pressured to come to work for financial reasons,” notes HyLife’s Lazaruk.

The companies mentioned above have not publicly shared what their plan is if or when a positive case — or an outbreak— happens at a plant.

The first publicly-known case at a meat plant in the U.S. was confirmed earlier this week at a large poultry processing facility in Mississippi. Sanderson Farms said it sent the infected employee home, along with six others who worked near the same processing table, but the plant was not closed.

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