TOLLESON, AZ — Calls are increasing for expanded access to testing for workers at a Valley meatpacking plant, as the number of sick workers remains a mystery, at least publicly.
For weeks, workers have shared with ABC15 fears about getting sick at the Tolleson plant. JBS USA has provided ABC15 with a list of preventative measures they've put in place, including removing vulnerable populations from the facility with pay.
However, some of those who are at work are concerned for their safety. Several cite the inherent nature of the job, which includes working around a large number of people.
"We know that there's a lot of cases there," said Martin Hernandez with United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99, which represents more than 1,000 workers at the plant.
Hernandez told ABC15 he didn't know an exact number of coronavirus cases, but he has heard from members. ABC15 has also heard from a sick employee, whose illness was verified.
Other elected officials ABC15 has previously spoken to were also unaware of specific numbers. JBS USA has not answered repeated inquiries from ABC15 about the number of coronavirus cases among the workforce in Tolleson.
"The state should also come forward and come out and demand answers from JBS," Hernandez said.
Across the country, some meatpacking plants have become sources of coronavirus outbreaks, which has led to temporary plant closures and backups in the food supply chain. An executive order from President Trump is aimed at keeping the plants open.
Hernandez says he wants expanded access to testing for the Tolleson workers.
"Not until everybody gets tested and we know for sure there's no cases there, that everybody is negative there, there's always going to be that concern," Hernandez said when asked about the fear of a potential outbreak.
Governor Ducey's office sent ABC15 a statement on Thursday, saying the focus is on making sure CDC guidance is being followed at the plant and steps are being taken to implement social distancing.
The statement also notes steps the plant has taken, including "screening of workers upon entry and throughout the day, providing additional restrooms and breakroom space, installing physical barriers between workers, and providing masks and full-face shields."
According to the governor's office, health staff will visit the site, to "ensure proper preventative measures are in place."
In terms of expanded access to testing, the statement notes, "Through the AZ testing blitz, there are sufficient tests for those who feel they have been exposed and we would encourage employees to schedule an appointment if they believe they have been exposed."
Hernandez wants on-site testing for employees.
"They should have testing available at the plant for the employees' safety, for their tranquility, the testing should be there for them," Hernandez said.
In a statement, a JBS USA representative told ABC15, "We are doing everything we can to help fight this virus."
According to JBS USA, they have removed potentially vulnerable populations from their workforce with full pay and benefits. In Tolleson, they have removed 13% of their workforce, which totals 1,700, according to the company,
FULL JBS STATEMENT:
"We recognize that many people feel anxious as we all face the coronavirus challenge together. We are communicating directly with our team members at work, providing them information regarding all the measures we are taking to provide a safe working environment and how they can protect themselves and their families away from work.
The response from our team members has been positive as they witness the interventions we have taken first-hand and absenteeism is improving as more of our team shows up to work. If any team member has any concern, they can confidentially contact our COVID-19 Hotline at 888-267-3447 or our confidential ethics line at 888-536-1510. To further support our team members, we have expanded short-term disability insurance and temporarily suspended the attendance policy to ensure sick team members do not come to work.
Maricopa County is experiencing an outbreak of coronavirus, with 5,138 cases and, tragically, 186 deaths. We are proud members of the city of Tolleson and Maricopa County, and we are doing everything we can within our plant to combat any potential spread of coronavirus. We are taking aggressive measures in our facility to not only protect our workforce, but to aid our community in battling this common enemy. The virus did not start at JBS, nor in the county, but we all must face this threat together to stop the spread in our community.
We are following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and medical professionals and the local health department. For employees who have been impacted by COVID-19, we are offering support to the team members and their families. Out of an abundance of caution, we have implemented a policy that removes any team member who is 60 years or older from any facility that is located in an area of community outbreak, such as Maricopa County, with full pay and benefits. In addition, anyone who is older than 70, pregnant, on dialysis, or undergoing cancer treatment has been removed from all of our facilities with full pay and benefits. This has removed more than 13% of our Tolleson population of 1,700. These actions to remove potentially vulnerable populations from the workforce exceed any recommended guidance from the CDC or any other competent health authority.
We are doing everything we can to help fight this virus."
FULL STATEMENT FROM GOVERNOR DUCEY'S OFFICE:
"Public health is our top priority. Our office has been in contact with local legislators and we've worked with the JBS Plant. Our focus is on making sure CDC guidance is being followed and that steps are being taken to implement proper social distancing and ensure employees can stay safe. The steps to protect health that the plant has implemented are important, and they include screening of workers upon entry and throughout the day, providing additional restrooms and breakroom space, installing physical barriers between workers, and providing masks and full face shields. Through the AZ testing blitz, there are sufficient tests for those who feel they have been exposed and we would encourage employees to schedule an appointment if they believe they have been exposed.
We will continue working with the plant, including having health staff visit the site, to ensure proper preventative measures are in place."