American factories produced goods at rates that were extremely close to normal during much of the pandemic. However, growers are worried that they may not be able to keep up until most of the country is vaccinated, as the coronavirus continues to grow in areas where many plants are found.
Protective measures established after the initial wave of the virus appear to have prevented major epidemics that have infected hundreds of workers and forced carmakers, meat processors and other companies to stop production last spring. But given that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the country has darkened to 300,000, and the virus is growing in the communities surrounding the plants, industry and union officials say it may be impossible to keep the virus out of factories.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of positive (test) rates as you see them in surrounding communities,” said Gary Johnson, chief production officer at Ford Motor Co., which has about 56,000 factory workers per hour nationwide. Federal Reserve statistics show that U.S. industrial production is about 5% below its level in February, before the pandemic hit. Between February and April, it fell by 16.5%, but has since recovered, led by car production.
Beef and pork production went just below last year’s level, said University of Iowa agricultural economist Lee Schulz.
But as the months go by before many people can be vaccinated, factories will still be vulnerable. “While we are all right now, this virus can spread quickly in certain areas,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing and meat packaging department of the International Union of Food and Commercial Workers. “Every day I worry about whether this virus will explode again in one of our plants, even with all the precautions we have taken.”
In auto plants and factories in other industries where the United Auto Workers Union represents workers, cases have risen slightly since around Halloween, but almost all have been found out of operation, said UAW President Rory Gamble.
Since reopening in May after an eight-week shutdown, three workers from Fiat Chrysler factories near Detroit have died from the virus, arousing fear among thousands of workers.
Gamble said much of the fear comes from misinformation about workers becoming infected with the virus in factories, which is not true.
“They have to have a full understanding that we’re doing everything to make sure,” Gamble said. “Because they have a right to be afraid.”
Statistics on the impact of the pandemic on the meat industry offer a lot of cause for concern. The UFCW union, which represents approximately 80% of national workers with beef and pork and 33% of poultry, estimates that at least 19,800 workers in the meat industry are infected or exposed, and 128 have died from COVID-19.
Employees like Donald Nix, who works at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, are struggling with a virus that marked him with fever, body aches and severe headaches in the spring for 27 days.
Nix, 51, is worried because co-workers continue to get sick. During the spring, more than 1,000 of the plant’s 2,800 workers were infected and at least six died. “My job is still high risk. My job is still high risk, ”he said.
But meat industry giants – Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS and Cargill – say security measures in place after major epidemics last spring have allowed them to limit the spread of the virus.
“We have significantly invested in personal protective equipment, protective measures of social removal and other increased measures of protection at work in our business. We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the number of active cases involving members of our team since last spring, ”Tyson CEO Dean Banks recently told investors.
Measures include pre-work wellness questionnaires, temperature checks, plastic screens between workstations, enhanced plant cleaning, random testing, and the necessary use of masks and other protective equipment. The industry spent about $ 2.5 billion on those improvements and additional pay for workers in the first six months, said Will Sawyer, a protein economist at Cobank, an agribusiness bank.
At Ford, factories operate with about 98% of their production before the pandemic. Most workers who have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus stay at home until the danger of infecting others passes, limiting its spread in plants, Johnson said. The carmaker hires temporary workers to take their place, allowing them to work on the assembly lines continuously.
Car and meat products companies say the virus infects less than 1% of their workforce. Car manufacturers and the UAW are urging workers to publicly wear masks outside the plant.
Members of the UAW, which represents 150,000 workers employed by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, said the companies largely adhered to their precautions and protocols.
“I know of people who have had it and had a positive test, but as far as I know they are doing what they needed to do in terms of quarantine and testing people,” said Andrea Repasky, a forklift operator at GM’s pickup. factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
People who pass in the plant always wear protective equipment properly, she said. Management is announcing how many people are being tested positively in each shift, and the numbers have been relatively small, even with a smaller wave after Thanksgiving, she said.
Ford, General Motors, Toyota and others are starting to notice minor problems with smaller companies that have to close factories due to virus outbreaks or government restrictions, especially in Mexico. Ford’s Johnson said the lack of truck drivers affects parts delivery. The company set the exact load to get the parts to maintain the plant, he said.
Ford had to delay production of its new Bronco SUV from spring to summer due to a lack of virus-related parts that the company did not want to list.
Toyota said it was close to stopping production lines due to a lack of parts, but has managed to avoid it so far. “There must have been a few close calls,” spokesman Scott Vazin said. “Every day we have up to 10 parts that we closely monitor in a red alert.”
Lauritsen of the UFCW said he hopes the industry will continue to work hard to limit the spread of the virus.
“We can’t be complacent just because things seem to be going on right now,” Lauritsen said. “We know that plants of any kind – whenever people gather in large groups – can act as a super spreader of this virus.”
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