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COVID-19 Shines Light on Labor Issues in the Food and Beverage Industry

Nov. 4, 2020
The pandemic has emphasized some of the workforce challenges, both short- and long-term, that the food and beverage industry will have to grapple with.

What’s going to happen to the food and beverage industry’s workforce after COVID is gone?

Probably the same things that were happening before. And are happening now.

The pandemic, for all its unique difficulties, has served to highlight and intensify some ongoing challenges with labor that the processing industry has dealt with for years. Worker scarcity, worker safety, crowding, low pay, tough conditions, high turnover and tension with management have all been heightened by the crisis. These problems are especially acute in meat and poultry, the segment that has borne the brunt of the pandemic’s impact.

Learn more about the labor issues impacting the food and beverage industry; visit the workforce news and articles we have on our website in our Careers and Workforce section  

After the pandemic is gone, these issues will remain. Luckily, some of the remedies being suggested for the workforce to deal with the pandemic have the potential to remain in place and improve working conditions over the long term.

“Companies have spent millions to evaluate potential vulnerabilities, not only in their plants but among their workers,” says Christine McCracken, an executive director and protein analyst at Rabobank. “This disruption has made it abundantly clear just how important maintaining a healthy workforce is to the continuity of operations.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that the meat and poultry sector has experienced the biggest problems with the pandemic, because that industry segment has had the most problems with labor in general. The biggest, and hardest to avoid, is the grueling nature of meatpacking.

“There are several recruiting challenges in meat and poultry plants, but the difficulty of the job is at the top of the list,” McCracken says. “The work environment is often cold and most positions are physically demanding, with a lot of repetitive motion.”

One of the biggest problems is crowded conditions, with workers standing shoulder to shoulder on what amounts to a disassembly line, cutting parts off animal carcasses as they move past. The speed of most assembly lines – intensified by a couple of recent regulatory changes that allow it to be increased – requires workers to work closely together.

But those kinds of conditions are what led to explosions of COVID in the meat industry workforce. About three dozen plants were shut down temporarily, with most of the closings coming in April and May. Among the food processing workforce as a whole, some 71% of all COVID cases, and 80% of deaths, have been in the meat and poultry sector.

Some observers see this situation as a lingering black eye for the meat and poultry sector. Hank Cardello, a food industry consultant and commentator, thinks the industry has no one but itself to blame.
“I think the problems in the meat industry may perpetuate, just because a lot of it really came across as intentional, as opposed to 'we’re doing everything to keep our workers safe,'” Cardello says.

He says the tension arose as meat plants struggled to stay open and keep product flowing. “You have a lot of bad blood going there,” he says. “People are going to work because they have to. Some of the meat companies actually made it clear they wouldn’t pay for people if they had to call in sick just because they were concerned. So when you have those kind of policies, it’s definitely an anti-worker type of environment, for sure. Can I predict how long that sticks? No, but I think it’ll stick for a while.”

In the courts

The bad blood is liable to stick around for a while. COVID deaths in the meat industry are already being litigated, with wrongful death suits being filed against Tyson Foods and others. At press time, Congress was considering whether to reduce the legal liability of employers when employees contract COVID.

Tyson Foods’ Training Manufacturing Center allows robots and other automated equipment to be tested.

No matter what happens in the courts, the core problem in the meat industry will remain: workers in close proximity. Some of the major meatpackers have tried to mitigate this by installing flexible plastic barriers, or even solid Plexiglas ones, perpendicular to the processing line, in effect creating little workstations. But the only immediate way to allow workers to space out would be to slow down the line, which would put processors at a competitive disadvantage.

One long-term solution to the crowding issue will probably be automated cutting. Tyson Foods, America’s biggest meatpacker, is already taking a big step in that direction with its Manufacturing Automation Center, opened last year at its headquarters in Springdale, Ark. The two-story, 26,000-sq.-ft. facility is devoted to innovative automation, especially robotics paired with machine vision.

JBS, the world’s largest meat company by sales, has a controlling share in Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based supplier of systems that can cut large-species carcasses with robot arms guided by vision and X-ray.

The technology, while advancing, is not yet at the point where it could completely replace humans. “The industry has worked hard to automate the most strenuous positions, with robots handling much of the heavy lifting and repetitive motion,” McCracken says. “There are limitations to what a machine is able to do, however, given the variation in carcasses and customer specifications.”

The promise of automation

Automation, however, has the potential to alleviate several of the labor problems facing the food & beverage industry in general, while potentially reshaping and refocusing the workforce.

The biggest problem is labor scarcity. Just finding people to do the work is a consistent headache for food and beverage processors; the situation has moderated somewhat during the pandemic, but it’s still a long-term problem. Simply put, food plants often aren’t the first choice for manufacturing workers due to the nature of the work, which can be unpleasant and even dangerous.

According to surveys by the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance, 65% of food processing workers have reported being hurt or made sick on the job. The most common complaints were cuts, experienced by 37.8% of all injured workers, followed by repetitive motion injuries (34.6%), slips and falls (26.8%) and back injuries (25.2%).

Rome Aloise, an international vice president with the Teamsters, recalls his first visit to a meat processing plant as a young labor organizer and how shocked he was that workers had to stand in blood inches deep all day.

“In the back of my mind there’s something that says, 'Maybe the more automated those types of jobs get, the better off we all are,' ” Aloise says.

The most direct way that automation can help is to take stressful, repetitive tasks out of workers’ hands. It also lets them – even requires them – to switch between jobs, which avoids the physical and mental toll of extended repetition and makes the work more interesting.

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This kind of flexibility often was required as the pandemic shifted demand among consumption channels and products.

“I think what COVID has taught us is that companies need to be able to pivot quickly, based on fluctuations in demand,” says Elizabeth Crofoot, senior economist for The Conference Board, a consulting group. “That requires a candidate who can be flexible, who can be trainable, and whose skill set transfers from one position to another.”

In many cases, automation is simply a matter of taking advantage of the capabilities of modern equipment, especially when it comes to troubleshooting and maintenance. Many machines can now tell an operator what’s going wrong with them – if the operator can understand.

Operator maintenance

Lute Atieh is CEO of Valor Manufacturing Training, a consultancy that specializes in worker training. “A lot more companies now are starting to train their operators to be able to troubleshoot their equipment before they call maintenance,” he says.

This training is often along the lines of: “OK, if this machine has stopped, what are the three things you as an operator can do to clear the error before you call maintenance or when you do call maintenance, you tell them you’ve done A, B and C.”

Read more about workforce training for the food and beverage industry in The Business Value of Workforce Training

The need to use automation to make maintenance more efficient is often required by a reduction in a plant’s in-house maintenance staff. “This has been a recurring theme that I’ve seen this year, because of the shortage of maintenance staffs,” Atieh says.

Automation, of course, often leads to a reduction in the overall workforce, which is why it’s viewed with trepidation – sometimes by management as well as labor. 

“Most plants that I’ve seen don’t want to automate, because they want to provide those jobs in those communities,” Atieh says, adding, “Now, most of the plants I’ve seen are having trouble filling those spots.”

Aloise, the Teamster labor organizer, says potential job loss from automation is a constant potential problem.

“What do you do with the [displaced] people, how do you feed them and how do they make a living?” he asks. “You have 10 people doing a job that a machine can do with one person operating it; well then you’re losing nine members, and nine people’s jobs are going away. So it’s not the answer. And training people to be beauticians rather than working at a factory is kind of the job training at the level we’re seeing it. And it’s not adequate.”

Training issues

Even where automation is not an issue, training often is. Food companies, especially those with high turnover, often take a catch-as-catch-can approach to floor worker training, expecting them to learn on the job. Others are more systematic and innovative.

Read about what Nestle is doing with augmented reality in Nestlé Speeds Support with Augmented Reality

“General Mills makes learning a priority, which we know accelerates business performance and enables people to achieve their potential – whether they’re just starting out or have been with the company for decades,” says Kelsey Roemhildt, corporate communications manager for General Mills.

Technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence enhance General Mills’ onboarding and training, Roemhildt says. They allow changes in the type of instruction, not just the content. 

“Beyond just delivering technical training programs, we’re shifting to a more blended approach, by offering coaching, bite-size modules, tools to encourage independent learning, visual controls, performance support at point of use, hands-on practice, scenario-based learning and reinforcement with manager check-ins,” Roemhildt says.

In addition, this year all of General Mills’ U.S. manufacturing employees will have access to a new online learning management system, a centralized platform where employees can harness new skills and share curriculum across plants. 

Roemhildt says that language barriers haven’t been an issue at General Mills to date. But the language barrier is something that the industry will increasingly have to grapple with. According to the New American Economy, an immigration advocacy group, of the approximately half-million workers in the U.S. food processing industry, some 29% are foreign-born. In meat processing, it’s almost half.

Atieh says that training materials in other languages have been in increasing demand at Valor Education Group.

“What I’ve been seeing in multiple clients over the past six months is an investment in seeing that all training is in native languages,” he says. Besides Spanish, the language most in demand in the Midwestern region where Valor operates is Burmese.

Even if employees can speak English, having things like orientation and training in their native language is reassuring to them, Atieh says. Now some clients are asking for more: “At least once this last quarter we’ve had it come up where machine-specific training is being done in native languages. That’s the first time that’s happened in our company, where we’re now being asked to put machine-specific training in [foreign] languages.”

Workforce issues are constantly evolving, and as manufacturers struggle to meet their need for skilled workers and automation proliferate across industries, it can be hard to keep up with the most important trends and topics. In the Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce podcast, we focus on workforce issues impacting companies and individuals across industries through interviews with a variety of experts. Listen now

Who’s available?

Labor scarcity already is a major factor in site selection. As tasks become more complicated, the availability of a suitable workforce will become more vital when it comes to choosing a site.

Many if not most food plants are located in rural areas, for several reasons: proximity to primary ingredients, cheaper land, less onerous rules about pollution. Those locations tend to have smaller labor pools. In some cases that works to a company’s advantage, because the plant will be one of the few, if not the only, major employers in the area. But if serious competition develops for that narrow labor pool, or if it’s inadequate for a plant’s level of automation, it’s an almost unsolvable problem.

That’s why being within commuting distance of a major population center is high, if not No. 1, on the checklist of many companies seeking new sites.

Scott Kupperman, a consultant who specializes in food and beverage plant site selection, says pretty much the first thing he looks for is a site within at most a 45-minute drive from a major population center. “Usually that’s kind of an early filter, and if it just isn’t working, you’re not even going to consider it.”

Beyond that, when considering a potential site’s labor pool, Kupperman looks at general demographics, the cost of living, the potential for population growth (or loss), the number of adults without cars, the education level and number of adults without a high school degree, and other data.

The point is to see if the available labor matches the needs of the prospective employer. “I’m putting more time into interviewing existing employers” to ask what they really need in a workforce, Kupperman says. The level of automation makes a difference. Some need just basic laborers, while “I’ve had clients who need very high-level people as part of their labor because there’s enormous amounts of automation or robotics involved, in a very high-speed, high-capacity line.”

Overcoming the trauma of the pandemic and maintaining (or re-establishing) trust with labor is the immediate task of food & beverage industry management. Beyond that, it will need to manage a diverse workforce that has to be properly trained to deal with changing demands as industry continues to automate.