Coronavirus hot spot in Minnesota connected to surge of cases at meatpacking plant

Workers and residents in a small Minnesota town who protested outside a meatpacking plant this week are demanding that it be temporarily closed for cleaning and sanitizing to protect the 1,100 people who work there.

They also demand coronavirus testing for workers — a request that came after the plant said the 83 cases it reported on May 8 had ballooned to 194 cases by May 11.

The plant in Cold Spring, owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, is able to maintain its operations because of the Defense Production Act, which President Donald Trump invoked at the end of April. But now, St. Cloud, a neighboring small town northwest of Minneapolis, is experiencing a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, according to documents obtained by NBC News, probably because of the meatpacking plant itself.

Minnesota had nearly 4,000 new coronavirus cases over the first week of May, about a 95.5 percent increase, according to the White House documents, while cases in Stearns County — where St. Cloud and Cold Spring are located — jumped by 454 percent, to 809 new cases, during the same period.

Patty Keeling, vice president of Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, lead chants with a megaphone from her car parked outside the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Cold Spring, Minn., on Monday, May 11, 2020.Jeff Wheeler / Star Tribune via AP

Employees said in interviews that Pilgrim’s Pride does not follow safe social distancing standards and that it encouraged employees to continue working even if they felt sick. Video obtained by NBC News shows workers at the facility packed elbow to elbow in a break room at the end of April.

That led workers to protest Monday and worker representatives to meet with the Cold Spring City Council on Tuesday to request a shutdown of the plant.

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“Things Pilgrim’s Pride has put in place in the past days or two weeks, when we knew they were needed eight weeks ago, is too little, too late,” said Natalie Ringsmuth, a co-founder of Unite Cloud, a progressive central Minnesota community organization representing employees at the plant. “That’s why the workers are asking for a shutdown.”

Ringsmuth and Ma Elena Gutierrez, whose immigration nonprofit Asamblea de Derechos Civiles is also organizing workers, emphasized that it is a concern not just for Pilgrim’s Pride employees, but also for the entire community.

Nevertheless, shortly after the meeting, the City Council unanimously voted to have Cold Spring Mayor Dave Heinen send a letter to pressure Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to reopen the economy. The mayor said he received “a couple of phone calls from a couple of bar owners in town, and they want to open up.”

The letter aims to tell the governor that “we support our local businesses and we’d like to try and figure out a way to get them opened up as soon as possible,” the mayor said at the meeting.

NBC News spoke to four employees at the plant on condition of anonymity who said that while their colleagues were getting sick, the plant was not following necessary safety procedures or informing them of the dangers. Pilgrim’s Pride, Heinen and Stearns County did not respond to requests for comment.

The employees said that some were given fever-reducing medication before the company nurse took their temperatures and that at least one employee was told that she was feverish and faint because she was wearing too many clothes and that she should get back to work.

An aerial view of the Pilgrim’s Pride packing plant in Cold Spring, Minn., on May 7, 2020.Aaron Lavinsky / Star Tribune via AP

“People know they have rights, but it’s like the company tells them what rights they actually have,” said an employee named Eme, who is quarantined and asked that her full name not be used.

State Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office is working with other state agencies to “actively investigate” numerous plants across the state, especially regarding retaliation against employees. The attorney general’s office is “contemplating” taking action against them, he said.

“If I was operating these plants, I’d make sure I cleaned it up, because we’re not going to let them put people at risk,” Ellison said.

A Pilgrim’s Pride representative said Tuesday at the Cold Spring City Council meeting that the company was following all necessary safety protocols.

“We are following all CDC and OSHA-issued guidance around safety and social distancing,” said the representative, Wesley Smith, the complex manager at the Cold Spring facility. “And we’re doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for team members who are providing food for all of us during these unprecedented times.”

Smith said Pilgrim’s Pride began to undertake the changes on April 12, including providing additional protective equipment, temperature checks of employees and COVID-19 screening questions.

However, in the video obtained by NBC News, dozens of workers can be seen huddled closely together trying to talk over one another. Many were wearing various face coverings they appear to have brought from home.

Employees also said they often end up wearing plastic aprons that other workers have worn during their shifts — aprons they sweat in because of the heavy physical exertion required to cut animal carcasses apart along an assembly line.

“Everything is exactly the same, and I am very worried and concerned about my co-workers, because three people came back today and they still feel sick,” said an employee who asked to be identified only as Maria. “The only thing that has changed is that we get a mask. Before, we just had a little piece of cloth. It was very tiny and thin.”

Pablo Tapia of Asamblea de Derechos Civiles holds a sign to protest unsafe working conditions at the main entrance of the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Cold Spring, Minn., on May 11, 2020.Jeff Wheeler / Star Tribune via Getty Images

The workers also said that the company appeared to have undertaken a campaign to convince employees that they did not get sick at the plant and that it offered extra money for people to come back as quickly as possible.

“The company is trying to hide everything that is happening there,” an employee said. “They are convincing people to come back by offering extra money and saying they’ll pay more if they come back to work, but they are trying to hide that they got sick there.”

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Ellison said workers had reached out to him regarding issues at meatpacking plants in Minnesota. That is what led him to sign a letter with 20 other state attorneys general Tuesday calling on Trump to take action to protect employees at factories that remain open because of the Defense Production Act.

“Essential workers are not disposable workers,” he said. “They’re not people who risk their lives so we can eat steak. They have as much to live for as anyone else, and they do a tough job in the best of times. The president needs to keep their best interests in mind.”

The employees all said that they want to work and do their part to maintain the supply chain but that they also want the company to do its part to protect them.

“We are very worried about the pandemic,” said Eme, the quarantined employee. “We want to work, but we have families. We are just human beings who want a better life.”

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