At Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, as many as 125 workers dutifully come into work each day to produce its popular frozen veggie burgers, chicken tenders and other items made from plants.
But like many food and beverage companies whose work has been deemed essential to feed the public amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus sweeping the country, it's anything but normal. Before employees enter the building, their temperatures are checked. People who are sick or believed to be ill are sent home, making the 26-year-old company increasingly dependent on its temp service to help fill its ranks.
While workers take their usual places on the production lines, Dr. Praeger's has tripled the amount of cleaning it does each day. Almost every hour, there's a person going around sanitizing doorknobs, light switches and areas where employees congregate in an effort to prevent any potential spread of the virus, Dianne Aronica, the CFO at Dr. Praeger’s, told Food Dive.
"The truth here is we are doing everything in our power to protect our people and protect the supply chain. We rely on our factory team to get the job done and produce the food. ... There are things we can't control but to the extent there's things that we can control we're doing our best."
CFO, Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods
The company also has taken an area in its building and turned it into space for people to eat lunch so they have more room. Employees are encouraged to spread out where they work, too, but the way the packing lines are configured it's impossible to maintain the recommended six feet distance in certain areas.
"The truth here is we are doing everything in our power to protect our people and protect the supply chain," Aronica said. "We rely on our factory team to get the job done and produce the food. ... There are things we can't control but to the extent there's things that we can control we're doing our best."
Focus on safety
As coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, the tens of thousands of workers who produce, distribute and stock goods for grocery shelves have been thrust in the spotlight as their positions are deemed essential and critical by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency despite the potential risk of getting infected.
Workers are now being asked to produce more to meet the surge in consumer demand for products such as soups, baking ingredients, beans, meats and pasta — a move that has prompted many companies to add employees to its rolls while lengthening or adding shifts to increase production.
"Our employees take great pride in meeting our commitments to customers, consumers and communities, and doing so safely and responsibly," Priscilla Zuchowski, a spokeswoman with Conagra Brands, told Food Dive in an email. "Now more than ever, people rely on the food we make to ensure they can meet their most basic needs."
CPGs of all sizes ranging from Dr. Praeger to Nestlé have promoted their social distancing efforts, touted extra steps they have implemented to clean their facilities and highlighted other measures they are taking to protect their employees.
"Keeping them safe has got to be the primary function because the minute an employee is affected, we're seeing plant closures," Howard Dorman, a partner and practice leader for the food and beverage sector at Mazars, told Food Dive. "We're always worried about contamination. And now, it's not only product contamination but employee contamination."
Food companies so far have been "very, very careful" when it comes to the health of their employees despite the pressure on them to boost output in recent weeks, Dorman said. Businesses need "to do whatever they can to protect the public and their company without a doubt. Hopefully, nobody's taking any shortcuts."
Nestlé, Campbell Soup, Unilever, Hormel Foods, Conagra, Tyson Foods, Mondelez, among others, also have increased pay for frontline workers or added other benefits such as childcare or covering coronavirus testing.
"It's more about providing the peace of mind for these guys to show up," Steve Presley, CEO of Nestlé USA, told Food Dive. "Anything we can do to try to make our teammates' lives easier in this crisis so they can continue to focus on making products and getting them on shelves for the American consumer."
As the virus has spread across the U.S., several food and beverage workers have contracted COVID-19 despite precautionary efforts taken by CPG companies. Recent reports show a few workers at Tyson Foods, employees at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Washington State and California and another worker at Nestlé's Purina distribution center in Pennsylvania have all tested positive.
And last week, Sanderson Farms confirmed 15 cases of coronavirus among its employees and another 36 people were awaiting results. The chicken processor also said it was sending more than 400 slaughterhouse workers in Georgia who appear healthy home for two weeks with pay as a precaution against the virus while curtailing production in the nation's largest chicken-producing state.
The increase in pay and benefits to employees now is not only about rewarding them for the additional risk and extra work they are being subjected to, but for companies it also has the long-term benefit of fostering heightened loyalty with those individuals once the outbreak has ended.
By supporting its 34,000 U.S. employees now, Presley said it sends the message that Nestlé is there for its workers in good times and in bad, creating a more engaged and committed workforce.
"I think we'll come out of this a stronger company, to be honest," he said. "I think we'll have employees that are more engaged and committed to Nestlé more than ever because they'll understand that Nestlé is here in good and bad times and during a crisis."
The watchful eye of labor unions
As workers punch in long hours during the outbreak, union leaders across the food industry are keeping a close watch.
Rome Aloise, the food processing division director and a vice president with Teamsters, said companies were slow to increase safety precautions at their facilities or to adequately compensate workers early in the outbreak — prompting the union to get involved. They have made meaningful improvements in recent weeks, he said. The Teamsters ranks include 100,000 workers in the food production, beverage and dairy industries.
"They've evolved into doing the right thing, for the most part," Aloise told Food Dive. "I won't say I'm happy 100% but as long as they continue to make progress that's all we can continue to expect under this situation."
While food and beverage companies have been largely praised, there are still critics. An estimated two dozen Perdue Farms workers walked off the job in Georgia saying the company wasn't doing enough to protect them from the virus or to pay them; the employees have since returned to work, according to The Wall Street Journal.
A Midwest Coca-Cola bottler and distributor also has drawn criticism from the Teamsters for offering their frontline essential workers a weekly lump sum "stipend" of $100 contingent on their attendance. Teamsters Local 727 in Illinois said other companies in the industry are offering 10% to 20% on top of the employee's base hourly rate, including overtime.
"Almost certainly with some companies it's altruistic, but obviously, to a large extent with most companies, it's pragmatic. They've got to keep people coming to work. ... Under current circumstances, I can tell you from advising the employers everyday, all day, which is what I do, they are dealing with a segment of the workforce that just doesn't want to leave their home."
Partner, Bracewell LLP
The union also said Great Lakes Coca-Cola should provide information on the sick leave/attendance policy it will use to ensure members stay at home while sick, cleaning standards the company is using and steps it is taking to inform workers of policies, procedures and exposures. Teamsters Local 727 also demanded hazard pay for essential frontline workers, a practice in place by other soda companies in the Chicago area.
Caleen Carter-Patton, a spokeswoman with Teamsters Local 727, said Great Lakes Coca-Cola is "incentivizing people to go to work sick" in order to collect a $100 bonus during the current pandemic and "punishing people who are sick for doing the right thing and staying home."
In one case, Carter-Patton said a union member had to quarantine while test results came in for his wife who was sick; the individual reportedly was told by the distributor to come to work or take vacation. "We're definitely having people that have gone to work sick because at this point [Great Lakes Coca-Cola] won't put in writing or guarantee that they're paying people if they're being asked to quarantine," she said.
Great Lakes Coca-Cola and its owner, Reyes Holdings, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lasting impact from coronavirus?
Bob Nichols, a partner with Bracewell LLP whose firm advises major food and beverage companies, was among those interviewed by Food Dive who said he expects financial incentives to continue as companies "are going to be desperate to keep experienced people working" and ensure that consumers have their products available in stores and online to purchase.
"People in the food industry are going to be working harder than ever and under really different circumstances," Nichols said.
Business can't afford to be spending the time or money hiring and training workers in the middle of the pandemic, he said. It's a better move for companies to spend money now to help employees concerned with the extra health risks they are encountering on the job or the extra responsibilities, such as childcare or medical, they are dealing with at home.
"Almost certainly with some companies it's altruistic, but obviously, to a large extent with most companies, it's pragmatic," Nichols said. "They've got to keep people coming to work. ... Under current circumstances, I can tell you from advising the employers every day, all day, which is what I do, they are dealing with a segment of the workforce that just doesn't want to leave their home."
Since the outbreak began, Bracewell has been helping its clients comply with shutdown orders. Some need determining which parts of their business are classified essential and can stay open. The firm also has worked with companies to prepare letters that identify employees as an essential part of the workforce, which can be used if the person is pulled over by police on their way to or from work or questioned by security at the plant gate.
Even as the outbreak eventually declines, the food industry, like many others will likely see meaningful and long-lasting impacts to its operations.
Ed Stevenson, co-chair of the corporate and securities group with Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, told Food Dive that product manufacturers or distributors might be more inclined to do meetings virtually rather than in person to save money and time associated with travel.
And it might encourage companies to make sure they have enough of a specific commodity on hand or find a second source that they can get it from in case supply chain challenges appear. He noted one client, who gets a substantial portion of its raw materials from a country hit hard by coronavirus, that has had difficulty obtaining raw ingredients and working with its suppliers.
"While a short-term increase in the sale of many food and beverage products could help manufacturers and distributors to weather the initial effects of the coronavirus pandemic, these same food and beverage companies will need to adapt their operations to meet a changing business paradigm for the long term," Stevenson said.