Employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Stephen Groves / AP

USDA Is Relocating Its Food Inspectors From One Hot Spot to the Next As More Employees Get Sick

Now employees are required to continue working even after known coronavirus exposure as government seeks to avoid food supply disruptions.

As more federal food inspectors go home sick, the Agriculture Department is scrambling to reassign employees from shuttered facilities to those with new outbreaks and is instructing those with known exposure to the novel coronavirus to continue reporting to work. 

The Food Safety Inspection Service, the USDA component that handles meat inspections, is still not providing employees with masks or other protective equipment, citing a national shortage. Instead, the agency told employees they could voluntarily bring their own “cloth face coverings” to slaughterhouses, processing plants and other facilities, and will reimburse them up to $50. Until earlier this month, employees were prohibited from wearing masks, multiple inspectors said, because it created fear in the workplace. 

Facilities in Greeley, Colorado, and Columbus Junction, Iowa, closed this week after outbreaks developed among both private sector plant employees and federal inspectors on site, increasing concerns about potential disruptions to the food supply chain. Last week, USDA sent employees from Nebraska to Greeley to help supplement a depleted inspector workforce there. After those employees were exposed to COVID-19, it had to shift workers around its Nebraska plants. Now, FSIS is relocating employees normally reporting to a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that was forced to close after hundreds of plant workers tested positive for the virus to a new hot zone in Waterloo, Iowa, where a growing number of inspectors have tested positive. 

Inspectors speaking to Government Executive questioned the wisdom of moving employees exposed to an outbreak to another location that is in the throes of its own, suggesting those employees could be coronavirus carriers and exacerbate the problems as they develop. 

“There is a less than robust approach to employee safety by the agency,” said an Iowa-based inspector who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Buck McKay, an Food Safety Inspection Service spokesman, said each district takes into consideration the possibility employees will spread the virus. He explained that “ensuring the U.S. supply chain remains strong is [the agency’s] top priority.” 

In a town hall meeting by phone this week, FSIS told employees that anyone who has been exposed who has not yet developed symptoms should continue working. One inspector on the call summarized the message as, “So just wear gloves and a face mask and work until you feel the symptoms of being sick.” Three FSIS employees confirmed the new policy. 

The agency declined to tell employees how many inspectors have tested positive for COVID-19, saying it was not relevant to carrying out their duties. McKay also declined to provide the figures. One official briefed on the data said more than 100 employees have contracted the virus. 

A growing number of employees are defying agency guidance that exposed employees continue working, multiple inspectors said, opting to stay home to see if they develop symptoms after working in facilities with dozens of cases. Others are calling out to avoid going to facilities that are still open and have a growing number of cases, or because they have preexisting conditions. McKay declined to provide figures on call outs, but said FSIS is ready to adapt to absenteeism. 

“FSIS is prepared to be operationally nimble and to use all administrative means and flexibilities available to protect the health and safety of employees based on local public health recommendations,” he said. “Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations. FSIS has a plan and authority to address staffing considerations and is prepared to act accordingly.”

The Iowa employee has been home for two weeks since contracting the virus. His job entailed traveling to conduct inspections, filling in like a substitute teacher whenever another inspector cannot report to work. He was not wearing a mask at any point, noting they were not available, as he traveled to several different plants and stayed in multiple motels. 

He acknowledged that he signed up to travel around as part of his job, but faulted USDA for not adjusting its policies in light of the pandemic. 

“This whole business of shipping us all around, exposing us to different large groups of people…” he said.  “You’re gonna get sick. That’s all it is.” 

McKay said FSIS is encouraging employees to talk to their managers about potential exposures and to note if they are at a high-risk of developing severe symptoms from the coronavirus, saying the agency would consider concerns on a case-by-case basis. 

The Iowa employee—an inspector for multiple decades—has used his sick leave while he has recovered, and will use an additional week of personal leave because he wants to make sure he does not get anyone else sick. Meanwhile, he said, USDA is making relocation decisions that put employees at risk by moving them from one hotspot to another. 

“How does that prevent the spread of the virus?” he said. “When you hear that, it’s ridiculous.”