Friday July 19th, 2024 10:58AM

Georgia's poultry industry challenged by absenteeism and maintaining product supply during pandemic

By B.J. Williams
It seems Georgia's poultry industry has been under a microscope since the coronavirus pandemic began last month, and the scrutiny has increased since the deaths last week of four workers employed with Tyson Foods in Camilla in south Georgia.
Because poultry plant employees work in close quarters, officials with Georgia Poultry Federation, based in Gainesville, knew the industry would have to enhance safety measures for employees during the health crisis, while at the same time keep grocery stores supplied with chicken and eggs, products that have been in high demand since Georgians have been sheltered at home
"The poultry industry in Georgia produces about 31 million pounds of chicken every day and about seven million table eggs daily," said Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles. "What has been really impressive and remarkable throughout this response is that, although there have been some disruptions in the supply chain, the supply and the amount of food produced by the poultry industry in Georgia has remained dependable and reliable."
Tom Hensley, the President of Fieldale Farms, said keeping the supply going hasn't been easy because there has been higher absenteeism at their plants in North Georgia during the pandemic. And, yes, some of those workers have had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
"Out of 3,000 employees [in Murrayville and Gainesville], we've had 20 positive cases," Hensley said, noting that many more Fieldale workers have tested negative for the virus. Some who tested positive required hospitalization while others did not. He said there's a protocol in place for all employees during the ongoing pandemic.
"We tell everyone, if you don't feel good, don't come to work," Hensley said. For those who do report for their work shifts, there's a process for entering the building.
"We take their temperature before they enter the plant...and if they do have an elevated temperature, we send them to the nurse. The nurse asks questions and evaluates whether they need to be tested for COVID-19," Hensley said. "If they are tested for COVID-19 and they are positive, then we send them home and we continue to pay them while they're home."
In addition, those workers who might have had contact with the infected worker are sent home to quarantine, and Hensley said those workers are paid, as well. 
Fieldale has done what many other poultry plants across the state have done to protect against the spread of the virus among employees, installing plexiglass dividers along processing lines, for one thing, and enhancing hygiene requirements for workers, too. 
Mar-Jac Poultry, with 1,300 total employees, said the picture is much the same at its facilities where about 14 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at its processing plant in Gainesville.
"We take their [employees] temperatures coming in and going out," said Human Resource Director Terri Middlebrooks. "We've sent exposed people home."
Middlebrooks said employee breaks are staggered to avoid crowded break rooms. Plus, all employees are required to wear masks during their work shifts.
Giles said the poultry industry already used strict guidelines for sanitation, so in most cases, the plants simply had to enhance what they were already doing.
"One advantage that poultry facilities have - and I would think food production facilities, in general - is that daily cleaning and sanitation is part of the normal routine," Giles said. "So poultry companies early on had an advantage in terms of being able to have the expertise and proficiency to take those cleaning practices [used in the plants] and extend them out into the common areas, like break rooms and bathrooms and touch-points like door handles and turnstiles and so forth."
Hensley said he feels as if Fieldale has complied with state and local health protocols during the pandemic.
"We do everything that they ask us to do, so I feel like we're on top of it," Hensley said. "Our people should feel safe to come to work."
Middlebrooks said juggling the new practices takes more time for managers, but she said in the current environment, it has to be done.
"We're doing the very best we can," she said. 
  • Associated Categories: Homepage, Local/State News
  • Associated Tags: poultry industry, Georgia Poultry Federation, Mike Giles, Fieldale Farms, coronavirus, COVID-19, Georgia poultry industry, Tom Hensley
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