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May 12, 2020

Closed after finding COVID-19 hot spot, Tyson plant in Portland adds testing, reopens

A row of women at an assembly line in a poultry plant, with platic sheet divders between them Courtesy / Tyson Foods Work station dividers, like these seen in another Tyson Foods plant, have been put in place at its Portland poultry operation after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Tyson Foods is rolling out new testing capabilities and health care options at its Portland poultry plant after last week finding 51 cases of COVID-19 there.

The St. John Street processing facility was closed for several days beginning May 2 while 403 employees and contractors were tested. Of the 51 who tested positive, 31 people didn't show any symptoms and otherwise would not have been identified, the company said in a news release. The plant reopened with limited production late last week once the testing was completed.

The outbreak was the first, and so far only, one in Maine related to a business that isn't a congregant care provider, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The plant is in Cumberland County, where nearly half of the state's COVID-19 cases have been reported — 714, with 31 deaths, as of Tuesday morning. The state overall has reported 1,465 cases and 65 deaths.

Employees testing positive were put on paid leave, and may return to work only when they have met the criteria established by both the CDC and Tyson, the company said in a news release.

The Portland plant, formerly Barber Foods, is among an initial group of more than 30 of the company's sites in the U.S. adding advanced testing capabilities and enhanced onsite care options in partnership with Matrix Medical, a medical clinical services company, and other partners. Tyson, over the past several weeks, has dealt with larger outbreaks at meatpacking plants across in Iowa, Indiana, Washington and other states. Many of those plants were also temporarily closed.

The company is prioritizing communities with a higher prevalence of COVID-19 and will assess additional needs based on clinically significant risk factors, CDC guidance and access to testing, according to a Tyson news release on Monday.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we are working with local health departments to manage the impact of this pandemic on our team members, their families and our communities,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods in the release.

“As we learn more about this virus, we continue to do everything we can to protect our team members and ensure they feel safe and secure when they come to work. We’re proud of our Tyson team members and are supporting them with the most up-to-date information and resources to take care of their health.”

Testing, programs for employees

Testing in Portland took place from May 2-4, and the plant was closed for deep cleaning and sanitization. Production resumed Thursday. Employees will now have access to daily clinical symptom screenings, nurse practitioners and enhanced education and support for personal health goals or concerns, the company said. 

"With the onset of COVID-19, the nation has been sailing in uncharted waters," said David Barber, whose father, Gus Barber, founded Barber Foods in 1955. "Since Barber Foods is a food processing facility, the plant environment has always followed strict sanitary procedures. The frequency increased as awareness of community transmission possibilities of COVID-19 grew."

Barber, Tyson Foods business development specialist, said that the plant in March relaxed its attendance policy to encourage people to stay home if they are sick, health care co-pay was waived, as was co-insurance and deductibles for doctor visits for COVID-19 testing, and more.

Tyson has increased short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30 to encourage employees to stay home when they are sick. The company also has doubled its “thank-you bonus" for workers. Staff who can't work because of illness or child care issues related to COVID-19 will continue to qualify, the company said.

The company said that it's also taking protective steps that "meet or exceed" CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance for preventing COVID-19, including temperature checks for all employees before every shift, mandatory protective face masks provided by Tyson, and social distancing measures that include physical barriers between work stations and in break rooms.

Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN) is one of the world’s largest food companies. Headquartered in Springdale, Ark., the company has 141,000 employees. It acquired AdvancePierre Foods Holdings Inc., the parent company of Barber Foods, in 2017.

“As the largest food company in the United States, we not only bear a responsibility to lead, we embrace it,” said Chad Martin, group president for the poultry division at Tyson Foods. “We will continue to evolve and adapt as we lock arms across our company and the country to help protect our communities and maintain a healthy and stable food supply for tens of millions of Americans.”

As it is doing in Portland, Tyson said it will disclose verified test results at other plants as they become available as part of its efforts to help affected communities where it operates better understand the coronavirus and protective measures that can be taken.

Maine AG calls for protections

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey today joined attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia calling for the Trump administration to provide further protections for poultry workers.

On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat and poultry processing plants, and deeming the workers essential workers. More than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 have been tied to the plants, and 45 workers have died.

The letter chargers that the executive order forces employees to continue working without imposing adequate and enforceable mandates to protect their health and safety.

“The Trump administration’s executive order did nothing to protect individuals who are working in dangerous conditions,” said Frey. “Given that there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry facilities across the country, including recently in Portland, it is essential that the Trump administration mandate protective measures such as priority testing, PPE for all workers, appropriate physical distancing, and quarantine with full pay for workers who test positive.”

Among other things, the letter calls for: 

  • Priority testing for workers in the processing plants;
  • Immediate access to adequate PPE;
  • Suspension of all line speed waivers, and a halt to approval of any additional waivers;
  • 6-foot physical and social distancing where possible, and plexiglass barriers where distancing cannot be achieved; and,
  • Isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers, with full pay.

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