(Bloomberg) — Just hours after a labor union reported what may be the first poultry-worker deaths associated with the coronavirus in the U.S., Vice President Mike Pence urged American food workers to continue to “show up and do your job.”
“You are vital,” he said during a press conference late Tuesday. “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America and we need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.” In return, Pence said, the government will “work tirelessly” to ensure their workplaces are safe.
Pence’s remarks came just hours after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that represents thousands of poultry-processing workers across the southern U.S. reported that two members at a Tyson Foods Inc. facility in Camilla, Georgia, had died from the virus. It was unclear whether they were infected while at work.
JBS USA on Wednesday confirmed the death of an employee that worked at its Greeley, Colorado, plant, citing complications associated with Covid-19. The company is a unit of JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat company.
Tyson said the company has been taking employee temperatures before they enter facilities, stepped up deep cleaning at its plants, implemented social distancing measures and given workers access to protective face coverings. The company didn’t comment on the deaths Tuesday or again Wednesday.
“We continue working diligently to protect our team members at Camilla and elsewhere,” the Springdale, Arkansas-based company said by email Tuesday. “Since the U.S. government considers Tyson Foods a critical infrastructure company, we take our responsibility to continue feeding the nation very seriously.”
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The JBS employee had worked for the company for more than 30 years, and a spokesman said the firm is offering support to the family and team members.
The coronavirus, which has claimed more than 81,000 lives globally, is spreading into America’s food-making heartlands. Shortly after Pence spoke, food giant Cargill Inc. said it was idling a beef plant in Pennsylvania after employees tested positive for Covid-19, joining the ranks of food companies across the U.S. shutting or reducing operations as the outbreak sickens more of their ranks and begins to affect production.
The slowdowns have fanned fears of potential food shortages just as supply chain disruptions are already keeping some basic goods such as beef, rice and pasta off grocery shelves. The U.S. Chicken Council said its members are doing everything they can to keep their employees safe and product on the shelves.
On Monday, Tyson said it had halted pork processing at a plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive. JBS suspended operations until April 16 at a beef plant in Pennsylvania after several managers showed symptoms. Other producers have faced everything from worker walkouts to hundreds of employees quarantined to people calling out of the job.
Coronavirus cases aren’t limited to meat plants. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., one of the world’s largest agricultural commodity traders, said Monday that four employees at its corn processing complex in Clinton, Iowa, tested positive for the virus. The company says it has less than 20 cases globally.
Walmart Inc. was also faced with employee deaths.