Workers speak out after contracting COVID-19 in meat packing plant

LEXINGTON, Neb. KNOP-TV With more than 1400 workers, Tyson Foods beef processing plant is one of the largest employers in Lexington, Nebraska.

Meatpacking plants have been at the center of several COVID-19 outbreaks around Nebraska this spring. We're hearing from some of the workers at Tyson Foods in Lexington who've contracted the virus. (Source: Beatriz Reyna/KNOP-TV)

It’s also become the epicenter of the town’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts recently said nearly one of every six cases of COVID-19 in Nebraska is a meat packing plant worker.

The number of cases has created a dilemma for workers at a time when people are self-isolating and whose livelihoods depend on the meat plant that remains open as an essential part of the local economy and food supply chain.

NBC Nebraska News 2 spoke to two current employees at Tyson in Lexington on the condition of anonymity, as well as a community advocate for the Latino community.

They all painted a similar picture: workers scared to go to back to work but in desperate need of income to pay their bills and feed their families.

They also said widespread absenteeism is leading to a reduction in the amount of meat being processed.

To date, Tyson Foods has not disclosed the number of workers who have tested positive at their plant in Lexington.

"I think that is one of our family members biggest concerns is knowing who has tested positive and if they've been exposed to COVID-19 and some of them are even concerned to return back to work," said community organizer Gladys Cox.

In an email, Tyson described additional precautions, including plastic divisions between some workers and a relaxed attendance policy, “to ensure that team members feel encouraged to stay home if they are not feeling well.”

Tyson also sent the following statement to KNOP-TV:

"The health and safety of our team members, their families and communities is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously. We are conducting testing of team members and will not hesitate to idle any plant to conduct additional deep cleaning and sanitization of the entire facility.

All employees who have tested positive will remain on sick leave until they have satisfied official health requirements outlined by the CDC for return to work, and we have increased short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30 to encourage team members to stay home when they are sick.

We have put in place enhanced safety precautions and installed protective social distancing measures throughout all plants, including in our Lexington facility. These measures, which meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance, include:

* Wellness health screening of all team members each time they arrive at the facility, checking for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath in addition to continuing use of the infrared thermometers to check temperature.
* The supply of protective facial coverings to every team member and requiring they are worn.
* The use of face shields for team members where workstation barriers cannot physically be implemented.
* Additional dedicated social distance monitors stationed throughout the facility during all shifts to help ensure team members adhere to safety protocols and social distancing requirements.

Our ability to get our workforce at full capacity depends on the safety of our team members. So right now, we’re focused on using every tool at our disposal to make sure they are protected and capable of continuing to serve their critical role of bringing food to families’ tables across the country.

The company has also doubled its “thank you” bonus for its frontline workers, and team members who cannot come to work because of illness or childcare issues related to COVID-19 will continue to qualify."

As of Wednesday, Two Rivers Public Health Department has reported a total of 815 cases of the novel coronavirus, including eight deaths in their district.

We reached out to the health department asking for the specific number of workers who have tested positive at Tyson in Lexington through the use of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

in a statement, their attorney Tana Fye said," Nebraska statute does not require a public agency to create lists or other documents that do not otherwise exist. My understanding is that there are no reports or lists that would contain the information that you have requested. "

Fye also said the health department is working with a epidemiologist on data compilation, as well as cleaning up the data sets due to incomplete responses from individuals and providers so that the information can be shared in the future. However, that data is not yet complete.