The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has challenged meat packers, and the workers who keep the country’s meat and poultry processing lines moving, perhaps more than any other manufacturing industry.

As the virus has moved slowly out of some of the early hotspots in densely populated urban areas, it has spread into rural areas that support most of the country’s food manufacturing. Meat processing plants have seen temporary closures and fast-moving outbreaks of the virus due to the nature of how the work is done. Some packers have had to ramp up hiring and evaluate how to incentivize production staffs to continue to work by providing more testing, safety protocols, and enhancing benefit structures.

Employment numbers in food manufacturing by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows the stark change in the job market. In March, the non-farm jobs report showed just 1,500 fewer jobs than February and 17,200 jobs more than March 2019. By April, food manufacturing had lost 86,300 more jobs and another 24,900 in May.

Staffing meat production plants has always been a challenge due to the hard work in often harsh conditions – especially for some of the smaller plants who compete with the larger packers, said Chris Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, Elizabethtown, Pa.

“With the pandemic, it has become a greater challenge because we are much busier, so the job hours have become longer in the same conditions,” he said. “One of the big challenges is also competing with the generous unemployment compensation that is in place now. Nobody wants to come back to work and are willing to wait until the unemployment runs out.”

Seaboard Triumph Foods (STF) operates one of the industry’s newer pork processing plants, located in Sioux City, Iowa, and it employs more than 2,400 people. Even as unemployment hit record highs, the nature of the coronavirus outbreak has made hiring a challenge for processors like STF.

STF officials said that due to local and state travel restrictions the recruitment pool has been limited. The company has instituted a COVID-19 questionnaire, temperature checks, and viral testing post-offer and pre-hire as part of their mandatory employee physical. If a potential hire tests positive, they are required to quarantine as directed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines and must be fever-free for 72 hours before beginning work.

The company has also limited recruiting efforts from “known hot-spots in the region” and has temporarily suspended hiring if relocation is necessary.

Many meat processing plants are staffed not just from the region or even from Latin America but with refugees from South Asia and Africa. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the meat-packing industry has the fifth-largest concentration of refugees. Tapping into these pools has become even harder for recruiters as travel has been restricted. Retention is key to keeping facilities staffed.

For recruiting on website, there hasn’t been a marked increase of the roughly 350,000 job views the website normally had before and through the pandemic, but the company has “offered free temporary job postings to help fill some of the immediate recruitment needs,” said Erika Osmundson, director of marketing communications for

AgCareers developed COVID-specific web pages offering tools for job-seekers and a library of on-demand, free webinars were offered to employers to address mental health in the workplace to help during these difficult times for both workers and employers, Osmundson said.

Despite the risk of infection in some areas, most employees want to work, said Michael Baker, beef extension specialist at Cornell University. Ramping up production to a six-day week is one option to keep up with demand as some plants have been forced to temporarily close due to outbreaks, and livestock shipment back-ups have created supply chain choke points.

Retaining efforts

Training new employees takes time and money, whereas, retention of staff keeps production lines moving. Meat packing companies are offering more generous benefits – like sick days and daycare – to encourage staff to continue coming back to work in an effort to get production volumes back to normal.

Wages have already gone up in many processing plant jobs, said Stephen Meyer, pork economist at Ames, Iowa-based Kerns and Associates. “It’s hard to take those benefits away from people once you offer them to somebody. I don’t see that going back.”

Competition between some companies has stepped up as well to tap into an already shallow pool of workers in some regions where multiple companies compete for employees.

“You drive into town and see a sign that says come work at our plant and we’ll give you $22 per hour,” said Dermot Hayes, professor of agribusiness at Iowa State University, located near the geographic epicenter for pork processing.

The focus remains on safety and cleanliness so employees can be assured their work environment is safe. Personal protective equipment like gloves, masks and gowns were already standard in most facilities but now companies are installing plexiglass barriers on some lines, conduct regular temperature checks, practice staggered shifts and most are even adding space to break, lunch, and changing areas to allow for social distancing.

STF changed its shipment protocol to restrict contact drivers have with employees and only granting access to essential vendors. Such practices demonstrate the industry’s realization that protecting the safety of workers from outside plants is another priority.

“Current employees become that much more valuable because they help you maintain consistency, provide a great recruiting tool and can help train new employees,” Osmundson said.

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. increased its bonus structure in the height of the pandemic and has recently reinstated its attendance policy while still offering short-term disability pay for quarantined workers.

A representative from the company said recruitment and hiring practices have not changed in light of the pandemic.

Automating solutions

Although the US Department of Agriculture reported in June that meat plants are operating at 95% of last year’s production volume, meat prices have spiked because of the temporary closures and a backlog of animals waiting to be processed.

For these reasons, the long-term result of the pandemic could lead to increased reliance on automation. After all, one way to solve a labor problem is to not rely on it as much.

“A robot doesn’t get sick,” said Evert Van der Sluis, professor of economics at South Dakota State University.

Labor has been cheap so far but as wages have risen in light of the shortages, a heavier reliance on machines could be the natural solution to human labor that is susceptible to illness or calling out from work for personal reasons, he said.