HURON — Early cases of COVID-19 in Beadle County sent many employers within the county scrambling, and once issues at meat processing plants began to surface, many were curious about the efforts at Dakota Provisions, one of the Heartland’s largest employers, to keep employees safe.
Dakota Provisions CEO Ken Rutledge and Director of Operations John Hott addressed the company’s safety procedures, as well as recent internal memorandums that came to public scrutiny through social media.
Hott explained that significant changes have been made in operations throughout the plant, beginning from the point where employees enter for each shift. All employees have their temperatures checked when they arrive at work and then must put on the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for their role in the plant, including a required face mask. Face shields are not required, but they are available for those employees who choose to use them.
In places where distancing was a challenge, DP inserted heavy plastic curtains between employees to create separated, individual work stations for each employee on the line, enforcing distance between co-workers. Upon leaving the active line for a break, employees encounter plexiglass partitions in the middle of tables in the break room to assist in creating individualized safe-eating areas. DP also built an outdoor pavilion for breaks this spring, which was completed before the first positive test at the plant.
Rutledge and Hott stressed that if an employee attempts to come to work while sick, they are sent home. “Any employee who has a temperature above 100.4 is sent home,” said Hott. “We have signage on the front door of our facility that states that if you are showing any signs of illness, go home.”
Rutledge added that those employees, and others required to quarantine due to a contact with an infected person, are paid regardless of the consequence.
Employees are also temperature tested as they finish their shift, and random temperature tests are done during the day, or an employee may request a check.
DP has a company policy that any employee who is feeling ill should stay home. Employees are paid if they are positive with COVID-19 or exposed to someone with the virus for their time spent at home under quarantine.
With contracted turkeys that come in to the plant on a certain time schedule and at the premium processing weight, a backlog is created when there is a shortage of employees, Hott explained.
“We are typically at 100,000 birds per week and the weight we aim for is between 41 and 43 pounds,” Rutledge explained. “With the illness we are seeing, our plant has “been limited to about 85,000 per week, which creates a backlog.”
“The only way that we can make up for that is by working an occasional Saturday,” said Rutledge.
Hott discussed maxing processing at 17,500 birds per day to allow for safe speed at this time during the week and at a lesser number on a Saturday.
Even at those lower numbers, a backlog has been building for DP.
“Our preference would be not to work Saturdays at all,” Rutledge commented. “Our employees need that time away.”
“We do routinely run shifts on Saturdays this time of year, however,” inserted Hott. “Sliced meats are at their peak season right now, so we do routinely run some Saturdays in May and June.”
Hott reported that DP is currently operating at 75% staffing capacity.
‘A case of frustration’
Rutledge was clear about the memo that was widely circulated on social media nearly two weeks ago. “We can’t force people to come to work.”
“That became a core issue of this entire Facebook thing was that we were forcing people to work, and that is not something we can do nor that we would do,” Rutledge stated, addressing the internal memorandums from Director of Human Resources Mark “Smoky” Heuston.
“We think we have the best group of employees of any turkey plant in the country,” Rutledge stated.
Rutledge went on to state that after missing nearly 100 workers on Saturday, June 13, Heuston was very frustrated and was strongly affected at a personal level by the absences. He spoke out of that frustration, and that led to a poor choice of words, per Rutledge.
“It should not have happened, and it will not ever happen again.”
Asked if any of the changes would be retracted after the virus was eradicated, Rutledge was quick to respond. “Our facility was clean before, but we weren’t spending the attention on each individual employee.” Hott echoed his comments, “Those are going to be standard operating procedure going forward.”