AUSTIN, Minn. — Hormel Foods was founded in 1891 and is now the biggest employer in the city of Austin. Richard Carlson, vice president of quality management for the company, said that long history of “partnership with the community” is what makes the company uncommon for its size.
It's also the burden and driving force for the company in its confrontation with COVID-19.
The “Keep COVID Out” campaign kicked off last month at the Austin plant, said Carlson, who's responsible for overseeing plant regulatory and safety activities.
So along with entrance screenings they began screening workers when they were heading out the door too, to keep COVID out of their homes and communities. Carlson said this double-sided approach is the genesis for the campaign.
“It was really important that we continued to remind them to follow the same practices that we were having in the workplace,” said Carlson, such as social distancing and mask wearing.
Hormel Foods also gave bonuses to full and part time workers at all of its plants.
“We didn’t want to create a situation where people felt compelled to come to work when they weren’t feeling well,” said Carlson. “Because really the mission was about keeping COVID out.”
Undisclosed case count
At the end of May, there were an estimated 25 workers from the Hormel plant who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the union representing workers at the plant. The union also represents employees at the Quality Pork Processors plant, where an estimated 60 workers tested positive. Both of those totals are believed to have increased since then.
Hormel spokesperson Rick Williamson said because the total is “changing so much”, the company is “not reporting publicly a whole lot” on the amount of workers who've come down with the virus.
“For a plant the size that it is, with over 1,800 employees, we’ve had less than 50,” said Williamson of the estimated amount of positive cases.
Williamson credits the “Keep COVID Out” campaign, pay program and “innovative safety protocols” for keeping that total low.
“COVID doesn’t start in plants, people bring it in,” said Williamson. “So it's making sure we’re doing everything we can to have our employees be very top of the mind in terms of everything they are doing outside the plant to keep out plant as safe as possible.”
The new Hormel normal
By now workers at the Hormel plant are familiar with the different zones inside that structure out social distancing. Every touch surface in and between those zones is sanitized thoroughly before a new shift arrives. Carlson said the staggered starts to shifts can take up to four hours for everyone to get inside and working.
“Whereas before, everyone just kind of showed up and hit the time clock and went to work,” he said.
Hormel struggled like all manufacturing companies to overcome the gap in the supply chain for protective equipment at the start of the pandemic.
“We very quickly pivoted to having employees bring their own face covers from home,” said Carlson.
Meaning basically they wore whatever they could find, which Carlson said was sometimes a balaclava or even a t-shirt made into a neck gaiter. He said the DIY approach didn’t last long and they upgraded to reusable cotton masks after that. He said the company sourced clothes, mattress and other kinds of manufactures from the community to make enough masks for all Hormel plant employees.
Employees at the Hormel plant now all wear disposable ASTM-rated surgical masks.
“It was really about letting the global supply chain fill in the gap that existed,” he said.
Same pride in the job
“My job is fixing the equipment so the products can get out, and being the troubleshooter,” said Drake on a recent day off from the plant.
Drake, who was born and raised in Austin, shoveled compost into a trailer from the city's bins which happened to be located across the street from the plant. After a 20-year career in the Navy, he enrolled in the electronics technician program at Riverland Community College, which eventually earned him the spot at the plant.
His responsibilities on the job include manning the conveyor system and the seven cranes that access about 10,000 storage locations. He refers to the position as a mix between MacGyver and Dr. Sam Beckett, also handling battery charges for forklifts and keeping the microwaves running to defrost.
Drake said his job hasn’t changed because of COVID-19, other than the extra safety precautions he has to go through daily. He said the company is working extra hard to screen workers appropriately at the beginning and end of shifts.
“They verify your temperature at the door, where you’re already wearing your mask at, and for whenever you’re around other bodies," he said.
Anyone who comes within 6 feet of him during a shift has to be reflected on a log when he leaves that day, said Drake.
He doesn’t know of anyone at the plant who’s gotten COVID-19, but knows some who've been tested after coming in potential contact. He laughed at the fact he was the only one from his family working for Hormel that had yet to be tested.
“My sister has, and my daughter and son-in-law has,” he said of COVID-19 testing in the family.
Asked if he’s concerned at all about a potential outbreak in the plant, Drake said "not at all".
“They’re doing an outstanding job in there to keep everybody healthy,” he said.