The COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin food processing plants continues to intensify, with more than 100 workers at a Darien facility testing positive for the virus and an employee at a Pleasant Prairie plant dying from the illness.
The Pleasant Prairie employee, according to medical examiner records, died April 15. When the Journal Sentinel posed questions Monday to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding the death, the agency said it would open an investigation and conduct an on-site inspection.
OSHA officials say they are now investigating seven Wisconsin food processing plants over virus-related concerns.
The agency had been saying for weeks that it wouldn’t crack down on businesses that didn’t abide by COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Workers and advocates say that at some plants, employees have been asked to work closely together without protection or to report to work even if they showed COVID-19 symptoms.
Nationwide, some meatpacking plants have closed over COVID-19 concerns, raising questions about the industry’s ability to supply grocery stores. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to keep chicken, pork and other meat plants open.
It’s unclear how many meatpacking and food processing workers in Wisconsin have been infected. Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the agency did not have the number of essential workers infected readily available.
Brown County health officials have provided numbers for their county, but other local authorities, such as Cudahy’s mayor and Kenosha County Division of Health officials, won’t reveal how many workers have been infected at specific facilities.
That leaves workers and residents in the dark about the scope of the problem at a time when officials are discussing how to reopen the state for business.
But the Journal Sentinel has been able to piece together snapshots that show the disease is having a larger impact than previously known on food processing workers.
With the additional cases at the Birds Eye processing plant in Darien, at least 551 meat and food processing workers at seven Wisconsin factories have tested positive—or the equivalent of nearly 9% of the state’s reported cases. But the total number of food plant workers infected is likely higher.
In Brown County, more than half of the 913 confirmed cases are food plant workers or people linked to them. Walworth County, where more than 100 workers at the Darien plant tested positive, has reported 139 cases.
At least one meatpacking worker has died from COVID-19, according to a report by the Kenosha County Medical Examiner’s Office. The employee worked in the Calumet meat packaging plant in Pleasant Prairie.
The report doesn’t say whether the worker, born in Mexico and in his early 50s, contracted the disease at the plant. But it says he hadn’t felt well since April 6, when he stopped going to work.
He left behind two daughters and a son, according to his obituary. One of the happiest moments in his life, the obituary said, was being able to put one of his daughters through college.
“He worked hard to be able to provide for his family and to be able to take care of them,” the obituary says.
Calumet officials did not respond to written questions from the Journal Sentinel. Liane Blanck, a manager with the Kenosha County Division of Health, said the agency wouldn’t disclose the number of COVID-19 cases at the plant or other businesses in the county.
OSHA spokeswoman Megan Sweeney said that the agency is investigating Calumet and six other food companies in Wisconsin, four more than previously known.
Birds Eye in Darien is one of them. As of Monday, 104 of its workers and contractors had tested positive for COVID-19, according to plant manager Christopher Guyon. That number places the plant as the third-largest known cluster tied to the food industry in Wisconsin.
The plant, which processes frozen vegetables and fresh carrots, is now virtually closed, Guyon said. The facility usually employs more than 800 workers.
On Monday, UMOS, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group that provides services to migrant workers, filed a complaint against Birds Eye with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, saying employees with COVID-19 symptoms were asked to work the line to ensure the product did not spoil.
The complaint also cites a video, obtained by the advocacy group and reviewed by the Journal Sentinel, that shows workers housed in barracks where beds were 1 or 2 feet apart. That could be a possible violation of one of Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency orders, which requires employers to make reasonable efforts to separate beds by at least 6 feet, according to the complaint.
Guyon denied that employees were asked to work while sick. The company, he said, encouraged workers who felt ill to stay home. He said the plant tried to distance the beds as much as possible and had workers sleep in every other bed. The plant also installed plexiglass barriers between beds. Some workers, he said, were housed in hotels.
Birds Eye spokesman Michael Cummins said the barracks housing shown in the video, lacking plexiglass barriers, is the quarantine housing for workers who tested positive for COVID-19.
Guyon said company officials learned the first worker at the Darien plant tested positive on April 13. Two days later, they learned about the second.
By April 18, 14 employees and two contractors had tested positive. Plant officials shut down most of the plant the next day. The plant is planning to reopen May 3.
Guyon said the company has been taking safety measures for six to seven weeks. He said the facility has increased cleaning, implemented temperature monitoring since early April and offered tests to all workers, among other protections.
OSHA is also investigating three plants in Green Bay: the JBS plant, where 255 workers have tested positive; the American Foods Group plant, with 145 confirmed cases; and TNT Crust, where the number of COVID-19 cases is unknown.
Salm Partners plant in Denmark, where 17 workers tested positive, and Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield Foods plant in Cudahy, where workers suspect dozens are infected, are also under investigation.
The investigations of the JBS and American Foods Group plants started after immigration advocacy group Voces de la Frontera reported to OSHA that the companies weren’t following certain safety measures. OSHA sent both companies a letter asking them to investigate the concerns and report back their findings and the corrective measures taken.
The JBS plant in Green Bay closed earlier this week. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the plant implemented safety protocols since late February and increased protection as officials learned more about the virus.
Bruett said the company ordered face masks March 19 but couldn’t obtain them until April 3. The company mandated their use April 13, he said. The company has implemented other measures, he said, such as providing face shields and physical partitions on production lines. American Foods didn’t respond to a request for comment; neither did TNT Crust.
Salm Partners spokeswoman Mary Schmidt said OSHA sent the company a letter saying regulators did not intend to conduct an onsite inspection but that the plant should investigate and report its findings.
Schmidt said that the plant had started to follow safety guidelines before it learned of its first case April 6. In early April, for example, the company installed plexiglass dividers between employees working closely together, she said.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance for Smithfield Foods, said only essential employees are working at the Patrick Cudahy meatpacking plant, and they are being provided protective equipment.
The Journal Sentinel has spoken with a dozen Smithfield Foods plant workers. Most said they learned through other employees that workers at the company had tested positive. The workers said the company started screening employees’ temperatures after the first cases had been confirmed. Workers weren’t provided face masks until mid-April, they said.
Haley BeMiller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.
A local foundation officially will own Yerkes Observatory and related property in Williams Bay after the University of Chicago completes a transfer of ownership Friday.
In an update shared Wednesday, the university said it is donating the observatory to the Yerkes Future Foundation, a group started by Geneva Lake residents in 2018 after the observatory closed. The donation also includes the telescopes and other property at the observatory.
While the amount was not disclosed, the university said it will make a “significant monetary donation of seed funding” to the foundation.
The university is also asking Williams Bay to rezone three parcels of university-owned lakefront land. Some proceeds from selling that land will be given to the foundation to help it get off the ground, according to the university.
The university in its announcement acknowledged community concerns about high-density residential development, but it pointed to two other potential benefits from rezoning the properties beyond what’s going to the foundation. Those are expanding the village’s tax base and supporting astronomy and astrophysics endeavors at the university.
The two sides also have agreed to “several long-term loans” of astronomical equipment from the university that the foundation may use at the observatory, the university said. This includes the “large” collection of glass plates and other artifacts.
In a memo shared before a Williams Bay Plan Commission meeting in March, the foundation outlined the “daunting” process to bring the observatory back into operating condition. The work includes getting permits approved by the village, fundraising and ensuring the building is safe to open.
It was not immediately clear how the COVID-19 pandemic is altering plans for getting the facility fixed and updated.
In early March before the pandemic hit Wisconsin, the memo said public tours could start as early as late summer.
The observatory closed to the public in October 2018.
In Wednesday’s announcement, the university said its scientists, librarians and students will be able to work on projects at the observatory “in the months and years ahead.”
Dianna Colman, foundation chairwoman, said the foundation’s ambitions for Yerkes are local, regional, national and international.
“Our goals include enhancing the magnificence of its structure, telescopes and grounds to continue its historic tourism appeal, and to maximize its educational and scientific potential as a forward-looking inspiration to generations of young scientific hopefuls,” she said in the announcement.
David Fithian, the university’s executive vice president who led the transfer process, said the foundation is “dedicated to Yerkes and the community.”
Colman said she appreciated the village and community’s connection to Yerkes.
“Our hope is to maintain and develop this beautiful and important observatory as a jewel in the crown of this community for generations to come,” she said.
Harlow J. Cole
Marlene A. Larsen
Mary Louise “Mary Lou” Mills
Heather M. Pagliaro
Patrick Dean Peshek
Jerald W. “Jerry” Smith
For most school districts across the state, the shutdown related to COVID-19 has meant plenty of adjustments.
For the Milton School District, those adjustments come with a silver lining: an accelerated timeline for buildings receiving upgrades through the district’s $59.9 million referendum.
Both Consolidated Elementary School and Milton Middle School likely will be finished earlier than planned.
An accelerated timeline at the elementary school means the building will be fully functional in time for school in fall rather than the original target date of mid-November.
That is partly because workers can access the school sooner now that students and faculty are out of the building, said Stephen Schantz, director of buildings and grounds.
Consolidated is getting a secured entrance with the referendum money. Other schools will get more classrooms, expanded cafeterias and handicapped-accessible improvements, among other things.
“Before COVID-19, those projects at Consolidated and the middle school weren’t scheduled to start until school got out, so we were targeting like a June 8 start date,” Schantz said. “But with everything going on, we decided to take advantage where we could accelerate those construction schedules to be able to minimize the effect it had on the sites and try to save money.
“One of the biggest pieces that has helped speed up the construction process is that we don’t, construction-wise, have to coexist with the school day,” he said.
The accelerated schedule will save money, but it’s not yet clear how much. It also allows construction to occur during the peak months of April through November instead of during winter, Schantz said.
Construction will be underway at all six schools covered by the referendum as soon as excavation starts at the middle school. That was slated to start Wednesday, but rain delayed the work for a day or two.
The projects should stay on track as long as supplies stay in stock, Schantz said.
“To date, we haven’t seen any supplier or supply shortages,” he said. “That’s always a wild card that we can’t control, and that’s something we’re constantly keeping our eye on. That would be really the only potential delay that we could see is if we run into shortages with suppliers.”
While district staff and teachers wish students could be educated in person, an accelerated timeline for some referendum projects could be a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
“All in all, I can’t speak highly enough for how everything is progressing,” Schantz said. “The unfortunate situation that COVID-19 is, at least we’re able to take advantage where we can so that when the students return, that they will come back to these projects moving along much further and faster to minimize the disruption that they’re going to cause and get them into their new spaces sooner.”