WORTHINGTON — Worker safety is the first priority, Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, Jim Hagedorn and Steve King said during a Wednesday visit to Worthington to discuss steps needed before JBS Worthington can resume normal operations.
A Tuesday executive order issued by President Donald Trump requires all closed meat processing plants to reopen for business, citing a need to protect the nation's food supply under the Defense Production Act.
The primary consideration in reopening the plant is ensuring the safety of workers, Peterson — who chairs the House Agriculture Committee — repeatedly stated. He added that neither he nor Walz will support a plan that doesn't prioritize worker health and safety.
Walz agreed, stating that the state of Minnesota is committed to both worker safety and economic vitality. Pork producers and production line workers are both "at the center of this," he said, and both groups need to be considered in making decisions about when and how to reopen JBS Worthington.
Operational adjustments are necessary to put an end to JBS employees working shoulder to shoulder, which will reduce production but also curtail the spread of coronavirus and other diseases, Peterson added.
"This is not going to happen again on my watch," he said, noting that JBS must make permanent changes so the next time there is a global pandemic, the company won't face the choice between continuing to operate and keeping workers safe.
He further explained that a task force, including UCFW and JBS leadership, has been assembled to determine appropriate safety measures. Although it's impossible to outline a timeline, Peterson noted, reopening JBS Worthington is paramount, because the processing plant is one of three that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has identified as priorities in maintaining the U.S. food supply.
"The president was right" to be concerned about processing plant closures, Walz said, since having a reliable food supply is a matter of national security.
While reopening is essential for the local and national economy, he said, "the workers' voices need to be at that table, and they need to be heard."
"We're paying attention to these workers," Peterson added, "because without them, we can't do this." He noted that per capita, Nobles County has the same rate of positive COVID-19 cases as New York City, so all parties involved are invested in ensuring worker safety. He also shared that Perdue has promised that the federal government will not force JBS Worthington or any other processing plant to open unless it's safe to do so.
Meanwhile, a group of protesters gathered in their cars outside the press conference, which was hosted in the Prairie Holdings hangar of the Worthington Municipal Airport. The group repeatedly honked their horns to let the lawmakers know their displeasure with President Trump's order to reopen JBS.
Many of the cars had signs displayed in the windows with messages for the governor and members of Congress.
As dissenters continued to congregate, the cacophony began to drown out the voices of the speakers, requiring the ajar hangar door to be closed completely. The protesters said they have a list of demands, but had not yet furnished that list to The Globe by the Friday press deadline.
The union representing JBS workers is also insisting on a number of measures to be put in place before the plant reopens. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 President Matt Utecht listed four specific requests:
- Daily COVID-19 testing and temperature checks for employees
- Priority access to personal protective equipment for JBS workers
- Slowing of line speeds to allow for social distancing
- Isolating workers who show symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19.
"This needs to be a collaborative effort with workers who are the heart and soul of our union, government and JBS executives that moves us to the safe reopening of JBS Worthington plant," Utecht said. "Our food supply will remain at risk until every worker who makes pork and other proteins can go to work without facing an increased chance of contracting COVID-19."