Dan Waters, vice president and general counsel for West Liberty Foods, L.L.C., shared with The Catholic Messenger this response to a letter from Rafael Morataya, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice in Iowa City, expressing concerns about working conditions at the plant during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dear Mr. Morataya:
Thank you for your email to Nikki Bruno at West Liberty Foods yesterday expressing concern for the safety of our team members during the COVID-19 outbreak. Please know that we share your concerns. The health and well-being of our team is our highest priority, and we have taken a number of precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of illness in our workplaces.
To date, a total of 6 of the 820 team members at our West Liberty location have tested positive for COVID-19. One team member was hospitalized but now is recovering at home. None of the other five team members have required hospitalization. We are not aware of any team members working at any of our other facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Upon learning of the positive cases, we immediately activated our COVID-19 response protocols to identify other team members who may have been at risk of exposure. The infected team members and the individuals working in proximity who were determined to be at moderate or high risk were sent home to self-quarantine with pay.
Last weekend, we closed the West Liberty plant for a four-day Easter holiday in order to carry out an intensive cleaning. We closed the plant Friday through Monday and re-opened on Tuesday.
West Liberty Foods has adopted a comprehensive plan comprised of best practices to prevent, prepare for, and respond to a COVID-19 outbreak, including the following:
- We continue to provide information and training to team members in regard to the coronavirus. The information includes instructions regarding washing hands and otherwise preventing transmission of the coronavirus, as well as how to identify symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if one suspects that he or she may have COVID-19. West Liberty Foods provides team members with periodic updates regarding company policies and other information relating to the coronavirus. We share information through meetings, email, televisions in cafeterias, Alchemy training sessions, and “The Barn” website.
- We continue to follow an elevated sanitation regiment. At each facility, cleaning crews wipe tables, chairs, lockers, restrooms, and offices with high-concentration disinfectant after each break and shift change. Direct line supervisors audit good manufacturing practices and hand washing. On weekends, cleaning crews fog cafeterias and restrooms. In kiosks where visitors come to complete job applications, cleaning crews wipe door handles, keyboards, and other surfaces frequently with disinfectant. We will continue to provide each team member with sanitary wipes and antibacterial gels for so long as supplies remain available.
- Our Occupational Health and Safety (“OHS”) personnel continue to consult with doctors, our in-house public health expert, and other health care professionals to refine protocols for identifying and managing team members with COVID-19. West Liberty Foods has purchased infrared thermometers and has begun conducting temperature checks of all persons entering our facilities in order to turn away anyone with a fever. Supervisors monitor team members for symptoms of COVID-19 and direct them to report to the OHS office if they appear to be ill. OHS personnel have been instructed to ask a team member to leave work if he or she has a fever, in which case the team member will receive a full eight hours of pay for the day and no adverse consequences under our attendance policy. OHS will then reevaluate the team member on the following day to determine whether the team member may return to work.
- West Liberty Foods provides a point of contact with information about COVID-19 and hand sanitizer to greet team members at the beginning of each shift. We have begun installing Plexiglas and plastic dividers between team members on our production lines and at tables in our breakrooms. We provide face masks for all of our team members to wear at all of our locations.
- Management has reduced the number and size of in-person meetings and encourages team members to use Google Hangouts instead of meeting in person. West Liberty Foods team members may work from home if approved by the Vice President in charge of the team member’s department.
- West Liberty Foods team members may not travel internationally for work while our coronavirus plan remains in effect. Our team members who plan to travel internationally outside of work must notify the human resources department (“HR”) prior to travel. HR will review each situation on a case-by-case basis and may request that such team members refrain from returning to work until at least fourteen (14) calendar days have passed since returning to the U.S., in which case West Liberty Foods will pay the team members for the days they did not work as directed by HR. HR will consider the risk assessment assigned by the U.S. government to particular countries in determining whether and when a team member may return to work following international travel. In addition, West Liberty Foods team members will not travel domestically for work while this plan remains in effect, unless such travel is deemed necessary and approved by the Chief Operating Officer to keep West Liberty Foods’s business running.
- While our coronavirus plan remains in effect, West Liberty Foods will receive only those essential visitors such as technicians, suppliers, and sales representatives who must provide services onsite to keep our plants operational. The West Liberty Foods Director of EHS will determine whether such visitors are essential. West Liberty Foods makes hand sanitizer available to visitors entering a West Liberty Foods location and asks each visitor to use the hand sanitizer. West Liberty Foods also asks visitors to complete a short questionnaire to determine whether the visitor has recently traveled to an area with a coronavirus outbreak and whether the visitor is experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19. Customers may come onsite if approved by a committee consisting of the West Liberty Foods Chief Operating Officer, Chief Talent & Culture Officer, and General Counsel.
- HR has prepared a temporary attendance policy to run concurrently with our coronavirus plan to eliminate adverse employment consequences and to provide paid sick leave for team members affected by COVID-19.
- Any team member having a confirmed case of COVID-19 or living with a family member who has a confirmed case of COVID-19 must refrain from returning to work until at least fourteen (14) calendar days have passed since the date of diagnosis, in which case West Liberty Foods will pay the team member for the days he or she did not work in accordance with West Liberty Foods leave policies.
- We will notify team members in the event that we discover that a West Liberty Foods team member or a family member who lives with a West Liberty Foods team member has a confirmed case of COVID-19. We will not identify the specific infected team member to protect his or her privacy. We will provide USDA inspectors with the same notice we provide to West Liberty Foods team members.
We are especially grateful to our team members who allow us to help meet the nation’s food supply needs. We will continue to follow best practices to protect them during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Our Vice President of Operations, Luis Villalobos, will follow up with you with a phone call. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to me at any time.
Since sending the email on April 17, West Liberty Foods has implemented additional protective measures:
- Staggered start times, shifts, and breaks and increased spacing in cafeterias and break and locker rooms to help with social distancing.
- Used contact tracing to identify team members who may have been at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
- Discontinued allowing candidates to come onsite to apply for employment. All applications must be completed online. We are conducting any interviews via telephone.
- Shut down water fountains and provided disposable cups for workers to get drinks of water.
- Slowed down line speeds and spread out workers on production lines to provide social distancing.
West Liberty Foods employs approximately 2,800 workers. As of the close of business on Friday of this week, 22 of our team members have tested positive for COVID-19.
I hope this email answers your questions. Feel free to call me if you need any further information.