LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts promised Tuesday to boost his coronavirus outreach efforts to the town of Crete, the state's newest coronavirus hot spot where cases have surged and local meatpacking workers staged a brief, impromptu walkout out of fear for their own safety.
About 50 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant walked off the job after company officials announced that the facility would remain open, just hours after they had said it would close to contain an outbreak.
The walkout wasn't union-sanctioned, and the workers eventually went back into the plant to discuss their concerns with managers. But a local union representative said it highlights the stress many workers are feeling as they work “elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder” cutting and packaging meat.
“They're scared,” said Eric Reeder, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents meatpacking throughout the state. “They want the company to be more transparent.”
Reeder said employees are worried that they'll catch the virus from a co-worker and bring it home to their families, and they were caught off-guard by Smithfield's sudden about-face.
He said company officials have taken steps to address some of their concerns, including reduced work hours while still providing a full day's wages. Company officials have also put up barriers on the processing line and in the plant's cafeteria, he said.
Reeder said he also was concerned about President Trump's order to keep the nation's meatpacking plants open, even though the federal coronavirus safety recommendations are voluntary. He said it could create a perverse incentive for plants to skimp on safety if they're under pressure to keep running.
“All you're doing is opening the door for abuse,” he said.
Ricketts said company executives contacted his staff Monday morning to notify him that they planned to temporarily shutter the facility, but then called back later that day to say they would remain open.
A voicemail left for a Smithfield spokeswoman wasn't immediately returned, but company officials have previously said they're taking extra safety precautions and consulting with public-health officials for guidance. Smithfield has closed plants in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin because of the virus.
Ricketts, in his weekday coronavirus news briefing, reiterated Tuesday that he won't ask any plants to close.
“As I’ve said before, we really need to make sure that our food supply chain is stable so that people can go to the grocery store and be able to buy those meat products,” he said. “This is important, mission-critical stuff we’ve got to keep open.”
About 2,000 people work at the plant and at least 48 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Crete is a town of about 7,000, located 25 miles southwest of Lincoln.
Crete is Nebraska's latest meatpacking town to see a spike in confirmed virus cases, following Grand Island and Dakota City, which have both seen have seen outbreaks larger than the one in Omaha despite having far fewer residents.
Ricketts pledged Tuesday to bring more testing and community-tracing to Crete, with a focus on workers who are often non-English speaking immigrants.
Nebraska is continuing to see a surge in coronavirus infections, including new confirmed cases in two counties, according to public health data released Monday.
Nebraska reported 330 new cases, bringing the total to nearly 3,400, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, Cedar and Valley counties confirmed their first cases.
Nebraska has seen 55 virus-related deaths so far, according to the department. State officials previously announced 56 deaths, but later in the day they said one of those deaths was an erroneous entry into the state's database.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.