Minnesota meatpacking towns face unique economic threat from COVID-19

Recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants are highlighting the unique vulnerability of small-town economies in Minnesota that are largely dependent on an industry particularly at risk during the pandemic.

When JBS, one of the biggest pork processing plants in the state and the largest employer in the city of Worthington, shut down last month, the financial impact was felt from the packing lines to a suddenly empty main street.

“I’m not going to lie, there was a little bit of panic,” said Kerry Cuate, whose downtown bakery had been delivering rolls to the cafeteria at JBS.

The plant reopened after two weeks and is now following a long list of safety measures to protect workers and limit the spread of the virus, according to the company.

Steve Robinson, Worthington’s city administrator, acknowledged the task of keeping people healthy and keeping the economy running will be especially difficult.

"With this virus, I think there are so many unknowns," Robinson said. "I would not be surprised if there was an additional smaller outbreak. I know (JBS) has really stepped up their monitoring and evaluation so they can stay ahead of it."

“A real vulnerability”

Worthington is not the only “one industry town” walking an economic tightrope in Minnesota.

A 5 INVESTIGATES analysis of state agriculture records found at least 15 cities with populations of 20,000 people or less that are home to large meatpacking operations.

Each of those plants employs hundreds to thousands of people who work in processing conditions that appear to be especially susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI).

“You have a large number of workers who, at least under normal operations, are required to work basically shoulder-to-shoulder,” said DLI Commissioner Nancy Leppink. “They arrive at the same time, they go through locker rooms at the same time, they get on the line … in a cold, sort of virus-sustaining environment.”

Days after JBS shut down on April 20, testing revealed outbreaks of COVID-19 at Jennie-O’s turkey plant in Willmar and Pilgrim’s Pride in Cold Spring.

"I think we’re going to look back on this and say, ‘this is a real vulnerability,’" said Arne Kildegaard, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota in Morris.

Kildegaard, who is also the former director of the University’s Center for Small Towns, said extended closures at plants such as JBS or others could prompt an exodus of the largely immigrant workforce that might have no choice but to look for jobs elsewhere.

“That has implications for the housing market, that has implications for the schools, that has implications for all of the businesses that used to cater to those people,” Kildegaard said. “Sort of maintaining the critical mass of population is in the forefront of people’s minds in a lot of towns from St. Cloud out to the Rocky Mountains … there is this sort of fear of the ‘death spiral’ as people start to leave.”

The economic “driver”

Operating in a city of about 13,000 people, JBS and its mostly immigrant workforce are widely credited with revitalizing Worthington decades ago. JBS and its workers are still a driving force of the local economy.

“Agriculture is not the only source of revenue in rural Midwest, but it’s a major piece … and in Worthington, it’s the driver,” said Mark Weaver, CEO of Cambridge Technologies, one of three companies in the city that produces vaccines for livestock.

Weaver’s customers include farmers who had nowhere to send their hogs when JBS and other plants in the region shut down. Under normal conditions, JBS was processing 20,000 hogs per day.

The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in workers at the plant in April did not come as a surprise to Weaver. Yet, his company, which employs about 50 people, was still unprepared for the sweeping economic impact of the virus.

“There’s no preparation. This is a black swan event,” Weaver said. “We’re totally dependent on animal agriculture, just like many of the businesses here in Worthington.”

Downtown Impacted

Cuate, the downtown bakery owner, said she and her husband moved their business, Panaderia Mi Tierra, from Long Prairie to Worthington almost 13 years ago because of the large Latino population.

They’ve been able to survive the last several weeks thanks to a brisk takeout business.

“Even for us, do you decide [to] stay open? Do you close? Are you going to have enough business to stay open?” she said.

Like JBS, small businesses in town are also struggling to balance safety and economics during the pandemic.

Ramiro Martinez, owner of the Telvis store in Worthington, chose to close down even before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the JBS plant.

Martinez said many of his customers come from JBS and the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., which also had to shut down in April after 850 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

“We just wanted to close down to prevent them and us from getting sick,” Martinez said in Spanish.

But after five weeks, he reopened his store to customers on May 11.

“We had some savings … [but] we had to open up again to make sure we kept running,” Martinez said.

Community Divided

Worthington and other towns, at least temporarily, averted the most dire economic consequences when President Donald Trump ordered meat processors to stay open, about a week after JBS had closed.

When Governor Tim Walz and area congressmen visited Worthington to lay out the plans for reopening JBS, the community divide was clear.

Hog farmers crowded inside an airport hangar to get answers about restarting the economy and protestors, including JBS workers, lined up in their cars outside holding signs that said “what about us?”

“I’m scared,” one worker, who asked not to be identified, said in Spanish. “Because there’s no way to do social distancing (in some parts of the plant.)”

Since then, JBS says it has taken a number of preventative measures, including temperature testing all employees entering the plant, providing extra personal protective equipment, and staggering workers’ shifts and breaks to promote physical distancing.

However, Weaver, one of the town veterinarians, said it’s a matter of “when” and not “if” COVID-19 arrives in meatpacking towns.

“As pig veterinarians, we internalize probably more quickly that this is going to go through our population,” Weaver said. “There’s no stopping it.”