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In Colorado, Iowa and South Dakota, major meat processing plants that help feed millions of Americans have been forced to temporarily close due to serious outbreaks of the coronavirus. While this dramatic action was necessary to stop the further spread of this deadly virus within these plants, their closure and threat of similar shutdowns poses a serious threat to these workers, their families, the community and our nation’s food supply.


For the sake of our workers in these plants and our nation’s food supply, we must take bolder action now to prevent a similar tragedy playing out here in Kansas.


First, food processing plants must immediately provide masks for everyone who works inside them. Given the nature of this outbreak, personal protection equipment is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. Without more PPE, these workers, who already face physically demanding conditions under the best of circumstances, coupled with the size of these plants, will remain vulnerable to additional coronavirus outbreaks.


Second, we must also slow down line speeds to guarantee safe social distancing between workers. Put differently, lines running at higher speeds make it more likely that workers will work close to each other, thereby increasing the risk of exposure to this horrible virus.


Why are these two critical changes so important? If you take even the quickest look inside a beef or pork plant in Kansas, you’ll understand why masks and slower line speeds are critical to keeping these workplaces healthy during this pandemic. A typical plant will have at least 2,500 or more people working side by side with knives and saws to create cuts of meat. Even in normal times, work is difficult and dangerous.


We must change course in meat packing plants now before it is too late and we repeat the needless tragedies we are witnessing in other areas. Failure to make these critical safety improvements is not just unacceptable, it would create a clear and present danger to our state and our nation’s food supply.


At a time when schools and restaurants are being closed for the sake of public health, it defies logic to keep the people who make the food we all eat standing should to shoulder while they work. A pork plant in Sioux Falls didn’t slow down processing line speeds or provide masks and the results were disastrous. It was forced to close when 500 workers tested positive for coronavirus, which represented almost 20% of all workers at the plant and over 40% of all COVID-19 cases in South Dakota.


We can’t let that happen here in Kansas. The only way to guarantee safe food is to have safe workers. Ignoring warnings and downplaying threats will not combat this virus. People everywhere are being encouraged to wear masks and avoid crowds — we should expect no different inside our meatpacking plants.


Martin A. Rosas is the president of UFCW District Union Local Two and vice president of the UFCW International Union.