85 employees at Patrick Cudahy plant have tested positive for COVID-19

Facility will resume operations on Monday, May 4

Patrick Cudahy plant
Patrick Cudahy plant. Image from Google.

Last updated on May 4th, 2020 at 12:34 pm

So far, 85 employees at the Patrick Cudahy plant in Cudahy have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to a city of Cudahy Health Department news release on Friday.

The dry sausage and bacon plant is owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., which agreed to acquire Patrick Cudahy Inc. in 1984. Smithfield in mid-April shut down the Cudahy plant temporarily saying a “small number” of employees there had tested positive for COVID-19. On Friday, the company said it will resume operations at the Cudahy plant on Monday, May 4.

The Cudahy Health Department said it worked in partnership with the Wisconsin National Guard, Smithfield Foods, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473 Union, the state Department of Health Services and the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management to offer free COVID-19 testing to all employees at the plant, which has about 1,000 employees.

Between April 24-28, 503 employees at the plant were tested. The testing led to the discovery of 22 new positive COVID-19 cases. 31 test results are pending, the Cudahy Health Department said.

“Testing like this is prioritized from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and really what we’re trying to do is stop further spread of outbreaks of COVID-19,” said Cudahy health officer Katie Lepak. “Having testing of employees regardless of symptoms will help us quantify and reduce further spread of COVID-19 in both the staff (at the plant) and within the community. Testing also allows us to reach out to individuals who are positive to make sure they know how to protect themselves and their families, and know when to seek medical care. We appreciate Smithfield and the union for taking these steps to protect the health of their employees. Their cooperation with the public health investigation and initiative to install safety measures and temporarily close the plant helped to contain the spread of this virus, and likely prevented this from turning into a larger outbreak. Maintaining physical distance is as important on the job as it is when we’re shopping or doing other activities. Wearing gloves and masks, frequent handwashing, and covering coughs and sneezes are also simple ways we can prevent catching and spreading COVID-19. Social distancing is as important in the break room or parking lot as it is on the shop floor.”

Several meatpacking facilities in the United States have been sites of COVID-19 outbreaks, including JBS Packerland and American Foods Group plants in Green Bay.

Concerned about the nation’s meat supply chain, President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order under the Defense Production Act compelling meatpacking plans to remain in operation. Smithfield Foods issued an announcement this week expressing support for that move.

“The company is evaluating next steps to open its currently shuttered facilities and will make announcements when it is ready to resume operations in each location,” Smithfield Foods said in a news release.

On Friday, the company said it was working in a “constructive partnership” with its employees to address health and safety concerns at its meatpacking facilities.

“Media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong,” the company said in the statement. “There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.”

The company said it agrees with employee demands for 100% compliance with all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance; access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and handwashing stations; robust communication in multiple languages; generous paid leave policies, including full bonus eligibility; and priority access to voluntary COVID-19 testing.

“At the core of the company’s COVID-19 response is an ongoing focus on employee health and safety and continued adherence with – at a minimum – the CDC and OSHA guidance. Across all its facilities, the company is providing its team members with PPE, including masks and at least temporary face shields. The company believes that the recent executive order (by Trump) will provide priority assistance in securing an ongoing supply of enhanced PPE, most critically permanent face shields, as well as aid the company in securing broader COVID-19 testing for its employees,” the company said in a news release.

The company said it has implemented mass thermal scanning and installed physical barriers on its production floors and in break areas. The company also said it is instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and that they will be paid, including any and all bonuses, when they are quarantined.

“These measures remain mandatory and nonnegotiable conditions for the company to operate,” the company said in the news release.

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Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.

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