SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Walk into a food processing plant in parts of South Dakota, Iowa or Minnesota and there’s a good chance a person would find workers who don’t speak English as their first language.
For example, a 2010 study by the U.S. Census Bureau said the Hispanic population is the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the U.S. and large percentage of the population find their initial job in the food industry. A November 2017 report from the American Public Health Association said agricultural and food production employers rely heavily on immigrants and people of color for their workforce.
The federal government had declared the meat packing industry and its employees as essential and operations continue.
Communicating on a daily basis with such employees is part of the operation. Protecting their employees during the COVID-19 is critical, two representatives of meat packing plants in Minnesota and Iowa said.
At Premium Iowa Pork in Hospers, Iowa, in Sioux County, “Communication to the workforce has been provided via postings and handouts, written in both English and Spanish,” said Lance Haugstad, the director of human resources.
The plant employs 415 people in a county where 11.1% of its 34,800 residents are Hispanic.
To the north, in Worthington, Minnesota, in Nobles County, JBS operates a pork processing plant that employs 2,700 people, according to the city of Worthington’s Community Profile.
Roughly 40% of the population of Worthington is Hispanic, said Steven Robinson, the Worthington’s city manager. The city’s estimated population is 13,721.
Another part of the population speaks a range of other languages and dialects besides English.
“Communicating clearly with our team members, who speak numerous different languages, is imperative to our ability to help keep them safe,” said Nikki Richardson of JBS USA corporate communications. “We leverage union stewards, supervisors and human resources staff who are bilingual to relay important messages. We also utilize various signage that primarily includes pictures, with little text.”
JBS has already had two plants shut down because of COVID-19. One plant employs 6,000 people in Greeley, Colorado, and the other is a beef plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, which was expected to re- open on April 14. The number of cases for each plant was reported to be less than 50 when the closures were started.
At least two meatpacking plants have closed in Iowa and Smithfield has closed in South Dakota.
Premium Iowa Pork also has staff of trainers, many of whom are bilingual who educate and train employees, Haugstad said.
“They are identified as individuals who can facilitate information / communication between management and our team members,” Haugstad said. “A high number of our management staff members are also bilingual.”
Robinson literally saw signs of how JBS was communicating with employees when he and several other city leaders toured the plant on April 13.
He saw signs inside the plant about COVID-19 protection in English and other languages.
“They (JBS) are really at the forefront of this because they have so many different languages (with employeees),” Robinson said. “They are communicating. They are getting the word out.”
“I was incredibly impressed by the measures they are taking,” Robinson said of JBS response to COVID-19.
Richardson said some of those measures include: removing vulnerable populations from our facilities, offering full pay and benefits, requiring sick team members to stay home from work, waiving short-term disability waiting periods, relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick, providing free 100% preventative care to all team members, offering free LiveHealth Online services that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost.
Measures also include doing health checks on employees before they enter the plant and adding physical social distancing measures like staggering starts, shifts and breaks, and adding plexiglass dividers in key areas, Richardson said.
Both meat packing plants have daily sanitation schedules but additional sanitation and safety measures have been added to both plants.
“Since COVID-19, additional measures have been instituted. Increased sanitation of welfare areas, staircases, and doors have been implemented,” Haugstad said. “A large tent has been erected on the property, in which employees may go and take their breaks, outside of our normal break areas.”
Premium Pork also gives a bottle of hand sanitizer to employees each week because sanitizer is so difficult to find, Haugstad said.
Employees are receiving COVID-19 information at work in Hospers and Worthington, and within the community of Worthington and in cities in Sioux County such as Sioux Center, Iowa. About 10.5% of Sioux Center’s population of 7,600 residents are Latino.
“Our school district has really been at the forefront,” Robinson said. “They are working with so many languages and dialects. The school district is very in tune with getting the message (out),” Robinson said of sharing the information about COVID-19 response and protection.”
Scott Wynja, the city manager of Sioux Center, said the city recently began distributing the city newsletter at food distribution sites and other locations.
The city had already been reaching out to local organizations and churches to help reach the English as a second language residents, Wynja said.
A city library employee also does a Facebook live presentation on Thursday mornings, Wynja said.
“It helps to distribute information through a resource like Facebook Live,” Wynja said. Some residents may not be able to read Spanish even if its their first language so having the verbal option is important, Wynja said.
Robinson said the Facebook Live option is also being used in Worthington.
The COVID-19 messages are reaching residents, Robinson said.
Last week he was in a local grocery store and observed that of those wearing a mask, most were minority residents, Robinson said.
“You can tell from the activity around town,” Robinson said. Daily life has slowed down and when people are out and about, including outside on a bike trail, they are practicing social distancing and other measures, he said.
As of April 13, Nobles County had one case of COVID-19 and Sioux County had seven, according to health departments in each state. Minnesota had 1,650 positive COVID-19 cases. Iowa had 1,710.
In Sioux Falls, the Multi-Cultural Center has COVID-19 information listed in more than 10 different languages. The center has been working with the city of Sioux Falls and Smithfield employees to share information.