BRAWLEY — Dozens of workers refused to enter the One World Beef plant on Monday amid concerns about the potential spread and exposure to COVID-19 among co-workers within the facility.
Their concerns were heightened recently by news that at least one employee — and possibly more, some employees alleged — has tested positive for the virus.
In response, the company’s management on Monday authorized the expedited testing of those concerned employees, referring them to an El Centro clinic for screening and evaluation.
A written notice that OWB management provided concerned employees Monday morning advised them that only those whose screening, evaluation and swab collection resulted in a negative test result could return to work.
Those who tested positive for COVID-19 following their evaluation and testing were required to notify the plant and quarantine themselves, the flyer stated in English and Spanish.
The evaluation of OWB employees at All Valley Urgent Care was already being carried out in a systematic fashion, and was speeded up by the employees’ work stoppage on Monday, said Dr. Brian Tyson.
Though he could not provide a total number, Tyson did state that more than one OWB employee has tested positive for COVID-19.
He further emphasized that All Valley Urgent Care doesn’t diagnose patients based on the rapid collection and testing of a sample, but also incorporates a screening and complete evaluation by himself or another provider.
“We figure out who is safe to go back, who must stay out and who needs treatment if they have tested positive,” Tyson said. “The biggest struggle for every employer is what to do when somebody tests positive.”
Results can be provided within a half hour to an hour following the screening and evaluation. Individuals who are diagnosed as having COVID-19 are then sent to a local hospital for confirmation, Tyson said.
Employees who had initially gathered at 5:30 a.m. for the start of their shift waited until about 9 a.m., when management advised them of the resources awaiting them at All Valley Urgent Care.
About 100 of the plant’s estimated 900 employees took part in Monday’s work stoppage, participants said.
Those who had initially remained outside made it clear that their actions on Monday were prompted out of concern for their and their families’ health and safety.
“We’re not trying to get out of working,” an employee said. “We’re all here because we want to work.”
At One World Beef, the plant had already implemented a host of precautionary measures to ensure employee safety, said Eric Brandt, president and CEO.
Since March 16, OWB had begun screening employees and requiring a 14-day self-quarantine for any team members showing symptoms.
A third-party has been contracted to provide daily cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting of the facility as per U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety and Inspection Service requirements.
The increased sanitation and disinfection also focuses on employees’ common areas such as breakrooms, locker rooms, and cafeteria areas.
“We’re also requiring, prior to entering the facility, all team members to sanitize their hands and the soles of their shoes, wear facial masks and gloves, and be scanned with infrared forehead thermometers,” Brandt said in a written statement provided Thursday.
On Thursday, he confirmed that one employee had tested positive and that the individual was in self-quarantine at home and reporting mild symptoms.
Additionally, OWB’s maintenance department is constructing workstation barriers to install between employees on certain sections of the production lines where employees may be in close proximity.
“As is painfully obvious, this is an extremely difficult time for the entire world, and as an essential part of the global food supply chain, we are doing our best to safely and effectively navigate our team members and business through it,” Brandt stated. “We continue to be encouraged and inspired by the spirit of our team as attendance at the plant continues to be strong.”
The shared concerns at One World Beef also come amid the rising number of infected workers at meat processing plants across the nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conditions at plants can be ripe for exploitation by the virus, and often include workers standing near one another on the line and crowded into locker rooms to change their clothes before and after shifts, Associated Press reported.
The virus has infected hundreds of workers at plants in Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and elsewhere. The capacity of plants that remain open has also been hurt by workers who are sick or staying home because of fears of illness, AP reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.