By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Previous blogs have detailed company leaders who’ve effectively led their organizations during COVID-19. This includes numerous, bold steps to protect employees’ safety and promote emotional well-being. Unfortunately, some leaders haven’t gotten the memo.
Cargill is both the largest and wealthiest privately held corporation in America. They make more than $100 billion annually in revenue and meat processing is a large part of their operations. As most are aware, meat packing plants have had surprisingly high rates of COVID over the last few months. Part of the challenge with this industry is that people work in close quarters, especially in the fabrication lines. COVID-19 cases at a JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado went from 120 to 245 in just four days with six employees dying.1 Outbreaks have also happened with Cargill in Alberta (949 workers infected), Tyson Foods in Indiana (890), Smithfield Foods in South Dakota (853), and JBS Canada (390).2
A total of 949 out of roughly 2,000 employees at the Cargill Alberta location tested positive for COVID. One of them recently died from it. Her passing sparked an outcry from employees who were told the workplace was declared safe. Some are demanding a criminal investigation. Tensions rose when company leaders reportedly failed to initially send condolences to her husband who also works at the plant. Additional allegations included leaders encouraging employees to work even after testing positive for COVID, employees working in close quarters despite physical distancing policies, and leaders initially delaying emergency calls after an employee lost three fingers slicing meat.2
Mental health concerns are also a challenge in this very difficult work environment. Workers may not understand resources that are available to them. Also, some may be afraid to speak up. Most at the Cargill location are immigrants or temporary foreign workers any many don’t speak English. Some report their job security is key to them remaining in the country.
It’s noteworthy that this single site is responsible for approximately 40% of all beef processing in Canada.The impact of poor leadership responses at this site were felt in the larger community. COVID cases at a nearby retirement center and Indian reservation community were traced back to the facility. In response, company leaders report they’ve installed protective barriers on the production floor to allow for more spacing between employees, introduced face shields where physical distancing isn’t possible, and provided busing with protective barriers between seats to minimize carpooling. Hopefully this will help prevent future infections. However, much of the damage has already been done. As professor Jessica Leibler points out, “They ignored it even after employees spoke out. They don’t care about the workers. They care about the profit."
Leaders need to remember that their response to COVID is a test of their leadership…and that people are watching.
At Propulo, our focus has always been on safety culture and operational excellence. Please visit our website (Propulo Consulting) for more business insights and leadership resources.