JVG_200519_SENECA

An employee moves labeled cans of vegetables through a machine at Seneca Foods’ processing plant in Janesville in this 2017 file photo.

JANESVILLE

Two unions representing Seneca Foods workers Monday called on the company to reinstate COVID-19 “premium pay” it had been giving employees at some of its food processing plants.

In a statement Monday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said Seneca Foods last week “discontinued” a $2-per-hour pandemic premium paid to union plant workers.

The pay cut affects “food-processing employees, warehouse drivers, packaging operators, maintenance and field workers and fresh pack operators, all of which have been deemed essential workers by the government,” the union said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers released the statement along with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Local shops for both unions represent more than 660 workers at Seneca’s vegetable and food processing plants in Janesville; Rochester, Minnesota; and Leicester, New York.

The unions are pressing Seneca Foods to “immediately reinstate” the premium pay, provide COVID-19 testing access and offer paid sick leave for workers.

They also want Seneca to join in a push for “stronger (COVID-19) guidelines and rules” and “even enforcement” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“These workers have worked day in and day out throughout the COVID-19 crisis, putting (Seneca Foods) first to ensure the sustainability of America’s food supply,” the joint statement reads.

The Gazette was not immediately able to reach a United Food and Commercial Workers field representative for comment Monday. A local management official at Janesville’s Seneca Foods plant did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The unions said workers they represent have seen “clusters” and “high infection rates” for COVID-19 in frontline workers in the food processing industry. The statement didn’t specify whether workers at the Janesville plant have been tested for or found to have COVID-19.

A Rock County Public Health Department spokeswoman did not immediately comment on whether Seneca or other local food processing plants have reported new or recent cases of COVID-19.

The unions’ statement comes as Seneca prepares for its busy vegetable-packing season.

The unions said the company, “at the urging of the unions,” has given workers additional personal protective equipment. The unions said they believe that extra gear could present new challenges on hot summer days, when some laborers might work 70 to 80 hours a week.

Rich Morgan, president of UFCW Local 9 of Austin, Minnesota, which represents Janesville plant workers, said in the joint statement that “it makes absolutely no sense” for Seneca to eliminate premium pay for workers as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

Morgan said the unions believe the virus will “intensify” under what he called a “broken political system.”

The unions riffed on Seneca’s corporate slogan, saying in their statement: “If we truly want to offer ‘Farm Fresh Goodness Made Great’ while feeding the world and protecting our most vulnerable workers, Seneca needs to step up and be a leader in the industry and show the world their commitment to their fundamental belief.”

Over the last month, two food processing plants—Birds Eye in the town of Darien and Hormel Foods in Beloit—have reported numerous COVID-19 cases, according to county health department reports. Seneca Foods is not affiliated with either plant.

Rock County’s health department and other government officials say the Birds Eye outbreak helped fuel the increase in COVID-19 cases in Rock County.

Health officials say Hormel has worked closely with county officials on COVID-19 infections, and Hormel said it has stepped up cleaning, sanitation and communication with workers—including presenting COVID-19 information in multiple languages.

Rock County health officials have said the county is seeing a disproportionately large increase in COVID-19 cases among Hispanic residents.

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