JBS closes Worthington pork plant indefinitely

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JBS USA on Monday announced it has closed its pork production facility in Worthington indefinitely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We don't make this decision lightly," said Bob Krebs, President of JBS USA Pork. "We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day."

JBS said the plant will wind down operations over the next two days with a diminished staff to ensure the existing product in the facility can be used to support the food supply. The company is then advising its employees to comply with the state's 'stay at home' order, but employees will be paid during the closure.

Governor Tim Walz and his administration addressed the plant's closure during his latest briefing about the state's response to COVID-19 on Monday.

"The state of Minnesota did  not shut down JBS, the company did not shut down JBS, the virus shut down JBS," Walz said.

The Governor's task force, assigned to Worthington on Friday, has since interviewed more than half of the 77 people who've tested positive for COVID-19 in Nobles County so far.

"In those 41 interviews, 33 were employees of JBS, 6 were family members, so you can see the concentration in the plant," said Minnesota Department of Health Commmissioner Jan Malcolm. 

COVID-19 cases spike in Nobles County; meat packing plant preparing for spread

The company has also taken other safety measures, such as temperature testing employees prior to them entering facilities, providing extra protective equipment, promoting social distancing by staggering shifts and breaks, and increasing sanitation efforts.

However, three JBS employees who did not want to be identified told 5 INVESTIGATES they did not think the company was doing enough and they were calling for a shutdown before the annoucement from JBS on Monday.

On Friday, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 633 said at least 19 employees at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19. Over the weekend, it negotiated a slowdown in production and increased pay for workers, but union president Matt Utecht said everything changed suddenly.

"The one wildcard that I was unaware of over the weekend was what the Governor's task force was finding out," Utecht said. "I believe something the Governor's task force found out over the weekend… had to have given them reason for paus and a sense that perhaps this spread could continue to develop at a rapid pace."

The rise in cases came a week after a Smithfield Pork Processing plant in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D. suddenly shut down because of an outbreak that turned it into one of largest coronavirus hotspots in the country.

JBS operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared food facilities in the U.S. The Worthington facility is now the third of their plants to close temporarily during the pandemic.

"As we all learn more about coronavirus, it is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing," Krebs said. "We have taken aggressive actions to keep coronavirus out of our plant and keep this critical infrastructure facility operational. It is our hope that Governor Walz's effort to implement more widespread community testing will help all of us better understand the measures we must all take to stop its potential spread. We must work together to defeat this common enemy."

During Monday's briefing, state leaders acknowledged the challenges of protecting and communicating with the 2,000 workers at JBS, many of whom represent a diverse group of immigrants who speak dozens of languages.

Malcom said the state has received a committment from the company to make sure all workers have access to testing.