Employees vent as outbreak grows at Central Valley Meat Co

HANFORD, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Central Valley Meat Company in Hanford remains open for business, even as the number of coronavirus cases at the facility continues to grow.

About 750 people work at the Hanford site.

Federal authorities have deemed meat processing plants critical infrastructure, and CDC guidance allows exposed, asymptomatic workers to continue working.

On Friday, workers could be seen getting their temperatures checked as part of the company's COVID-19 screening process.

More than 150 plant employees have now tested positive for the disease, and the Kings County Public Health Department says the new state testing site's top priority is testing Central Valley meat workers and their families.

"We want to create a healthy environment for the workers of Central Valley Meat Company and make it a happy place to work and a healthy place to work too," said Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon.

Verboon added the company did not create the virus. It was brought to them.

"The coronavirus is not some cloud floating around waiting to infect someone, the nightly deep cleaning and sanitizing along with the daily additional sanitation efforts that are done throughout the facility completely kills any potential virus residue on all contact surfaces," part of a company notice sent to employees on April 25th reads.

The notice goes on to say the company is in the process of identifying employees that may have had close unprotected contact with employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, and getting them tested.

But some workers tell Action News that management could have done more to contain the outbreak, which accounts for well over half the county's cases.

Action News disguised their voices to protect their identities.

"Another guy that works on my line tested positive," one worker said. "They didn't tell us about him. Or they didn't even test us. They didn't even come to the people that he works around and try to test them to make sure that they weren't contagious."

That employee is still going to work.

But the company says around 200 employees have stopped coming to work.

"I know people who are still going in because they're being threatened like they're going to get fired if they don't go in," another worker who stopped showing up told Action News. "And I know people who just walked out because it's just too dangerous, including myself."

Instead of the $100 per week bonus being offered, they would have liked to see the facility temporarily shut down and sanitized.

They also claim they weren't getting answers about the extent of the outbreak.

"When I called, they told me, "Oh what good is telling you a number for you to come to work?'"

Because the numbers are changing, the company says a number they give an employee may not be accurate.

They add that employees are not being threatened to be fired, forced to work, or punished for being out sick.

The company says their daily sanitation process continues to exceed CDC guidelines.

As far as testing, they say they identified close contacts and reported them to the county, and conducted onsite testing for employees who work in the production boning room on May 2nd.

Action News asked Central Valley Meat Company representative Mike Casey a series of questions about employee claims. Here are his responses:

Q: Some of the employees I've talked to say they would have liked to see more testing sooner. For instance, one employee says the company did not notify them of an employee in their area who tested positive, and that the company didn't act to test other employees in that area. Can you explain what the company's approach to testing has been since the first cases? Has that approach changed at all?

The CDC has criteria for testing close contact individuals and what constitutes close contact. Employee's that tested positive would have told County Health personnel all of their potential close contacts. In addition the company identified those close contact employees and reported them to the County. Testing was not available for asymptomatic employees until recently. On May 2 in collaboration with the Kings County Health Department we made testing available to our employees onsite at the facility.

Q: Despite reassurances that sanitation efforts during the day and at night are killing the virus, one employee I spoke to questioned whether there was enough sanitation happening, due to the fact that many people have walked out/quit. Has the plant been able to increase and maintain sanitation measures per CDC guidelines for meat processing facilities? Have any outside cleaning crews come in to help with this?

Operations do not begin until a thorough cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting of the entire facility is performed each day. This facility is held to strict sanitation requirements that are audited and tested for compliance internally and by the United States Department of Agriculture

I can assure you that the daily sanitation process have and continue to exceed all CDC guidelines. In fact we have hired additional dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean the facilities and common areas.

Q: A couple of employees I've talked to say the company has provided them with face masks. A couple of others have said they've received nothing and are wearing their own. Who is the company providing masks to? When did that start?

The company has passed out more than 2,000 cloth face coverings The employees are required to wear them in all areas that have other employees present Face coverings are the new norm for our entire communities and employees are expected to report to work with a face covering.

Q: A couple of employees claim the barriers that have been set up are basically poles with plastic bags. Is that true? The CDC recommends impermeable barriers if possible.

The company has performed a worksite hazard assessment of the facility based on the Guidance from CDC and OSHA for meat processing workers. We continue to assess different barrier types throughout the facility to find those that are the best fit and most practical for the different applications

Q: Employees I've spoken to feel they haven't been getting a clear picture of the extent of the outbreak, specifically the number of cases. Even when they ask, they say, they are not given an answer. What's the company's position on keeping employees informed on the extent of the outbreak and the number of cases?

The number of cases is continuously being updated Because the numbers change, telling employees what the number is at one point during the day may not be accurate at the end of the day

Q: A couple of employees have told me employees are being threatened with termination if they don't come to work. Is that true? Are employees allowed to use sick or vacation days right now?

No employee has been threatened to be terminated Let me be clear, employees that have tested positive or put into quarantine have been paid up to 80 hours during their time off. If for some reason their medical provider keeps them off longer than that, the employee may use any accrued sick or vacation time. We have relaxed attendance policies to eliminate any punitive effect for missing work due to COVID-19. Those employees that are not sick or quarantined are expected to be at work. No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons

Q: Is the company encouraging all employees who are still working to get tested, even if they don't have symptoms? Have they been made aware of the new state testing site in Hanford and its hours of operation?

Employees may certainly chose to be tested if they desire, The availability of testing has only recently expanded in the counties and a few state testing sites have only now opened up in the counties. Prior to that most medical providers would not test asymptomatic individuals On May 2 in collaboration with the Kings County Health Department we made testing available to our employees onsite at the facility. We learned last night only by social media posting that Kings County was opening a state testing site with Central Valley Meat employees and their families being their priority. We were never notified by the County health department of the notice or the testing sites priority or we could have certainly assisted in getting the word out. Since then we have made efforts thorough today to inform employees of the added testing capabilities in the county.

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