Following a difficult year during which at least 57,164 meatpacking employees have been sickened with COVID-19 and 278 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Foster Farms is one of the first to give its employees the best known protection against the virus.
The vaccination program is a partnership between the chicken processor and the Fresno County Department of Public Health. It’s intended as a trial of a food manufacturing workplace vaccination clinic that could be replicated at other facilities in the county, as well as the state. Several food processors and manufacturers are located in the central California county, where food and agriculture are a major economic driver. According to a statement on Foster Farms’ website, the county health department is working with the chicken processor to figure out how a large employer can successfully implement a vaccination clinic, communicate with its employees about the vaccine and administer doses in workplace settings. Foster Farms hopes to host similar clinics at facilities in other California counties.
The Fresno Foster Farms plant itself has experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. According to the Fresno Bee, more than 200 employees at that plant have been sick with COVID-19 in the past year. Four died of related complications. The plant has been active in mitigating and preventing outbreaks, administering more than 100,000 COVID-19 tests to employees in the past five months, Foster Farms said in a statement.
Company wide, Foster Farms has seen at least 21 COVID-19-related deaths among its workers. The company is also facing a lawsuit from the United Farm Workers in another California county dealing with plant outbreaks. Right now, the COVID-19 positivity rate at the plant is less than 1%, the Fresno Bee reported.
As vaccine eligibility broadens to include food manufacturing workers, this type of program may be the best way to ensure that workers both get their vaccinations and are well informed about them. The early days of vaccine rollout have been beset by poor organization and misinformation, prompting some to want to skip the vaccination. By bringing the vaccines to the plant, it ensures that all employees not only have the same access to the vaccine, but also that all employees are equally protected against COVID-19 infection. The company also has an opportunity to clearly communicate science-based information about the vaccine. The on-site clinic also removes the potentially awkward situation of forcing employees to request time off on two separate occasions to receive their vaccinations, or even not getting the shot because they want to conserve time off.
A Food Dive analysis found most states plan to allow workers to get vaccinated in Phase 1B along with other critical or essential workers. As counties and states start getting more doses of the vaccine, it may be advantageous for them to partner with manufacturers and processors like this to ensure that all employees can get both doses of the vaccination.
Although food plants have been able to adapt to the new normal, with more staggered shifts, new social distancing, extra personal protective equipment, robotics and plexiglass barriers, it’s been expensive, slowed outputs and is less than ideal for work. The coronavirus pandemic has proven deadly to employees and detrimental to their morale. The Foster Farms program just started this week — the company said in the statement it hopes all employees can get their first dose by Friday — so it’s too soon to say it’s been a success. But mass vaccinations are a lasting solution to many of these problems, and could help bring the industry back to the volume and worker satisfaction of pre-pandemic days.