WCMA Notes: Dairy Processors Pivot to Protect Employees from Delta Variant

Posted By: Rebekah Sweeney WCMA News ,

Submitted by: Rebekah Sweeney, WCMA Senior Director, Programs & Policy

For many employers, Labor Day was the target for a return to normal.  Office workers would head back to their cubicles, sales staff would travel the world once more, and operations would move past pandemic protocols.  But as has happened so frequently during the COVID-19 crisis, plans have changed.

The rise and rapid spread of the more infectious, more aggressive Delta variant, coupled with lagging vaccination rates, has us once again facing an unclear future.  More than 100,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States today, and more than three-quarters of the nation’s ICU beds are full.  Marking the worst toll since the pandemic’s peak last January, in just the past week, 9,421 Americans succumbed to the virus.

These sobering statistics haven’t triggered the lockdowns or mandates we experienced in the first waves, and some believe we will need to learn to live with the ongoing reality of COVID-19 in our society.  But public health experts warn that this is not the time for a return to normal.

In a recent Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) webinar, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Meiman detailed three key strategies dairy processing employers could adopt to guard against a Delta variant outbreak.

Strategy 1: Universal Masking

Echoing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Dr. Meiman emphasized the value of universal masking policies.  While all three approved COVID-19 vaccines protect against serious outcomes, breakthrough infections are increasingly common with the Delta variant and vaccinated individuals can also be carriers of the virus, making masking a helpful protection for all.

WCMA conducted an Instant Data survey of members this week, with 40 processor respondents representing a workforce of 24,000. The survey found that 74 percent of industry employees are required to wear masks on the job today.

Juliane Kluever, Human Resources Manager for Arla Foods USA’s facility in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, with more than 200 employees, notes they reinstituted masking requirements in mid-August, in response to the Delta variant spike.  “While we were all hoping we could drop our mask requirements as our workforce got vaccinated, it’s clear that the Delta variant poses a risk to all our employees.  Our company’s top priority remains protecting the health and safety of our employees and, right now, that means masking up,” said Kluever.

Strategy 2: Vaccination Requirements

What do Walt Disney, the Pentagon, Microsoft and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese have in common?  They’re all requiring COVID-19 vaccination for their workforce.  Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese vice president Debbie Crave noted to WCMA, “When I heard that if you’re unvaccinated and exposed to COVID-19, you have to quarantine, I knew what we had to do.  To ensure our operations continue uninterrupted, and to provide the best work environment for our valued employees, we’re proud to require vaccination.  It’s effective, it’s safe, it’s free, and it’s our way past this pandemic.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has clearly stated that it is legal for companies to require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and public health officials, including Dr. Meiman, have continued to stress that vaccination is the best form of protection.

Strategy 3: Testing Protocols

In lieu of – or in addition to – vaccination policies, many U.S. employers are implementing testing protocols for their staff, particularly for those who are unvaccinated.  Twice-weekly testing can mean earlier detection of an infection and limit the spread of COVID-19 in a workplace.  Dr. Meiman notes that any FDA-approved test, including the over-the-counter, inexpensive antigen tests widely available at pharmacies, are considered valid and effective, and both the CDC and state departments of health have guidance and consultative services available for employers interested in getting started.

It’s understandable that some dairy processing employers may hesitate to implement protocols, concerned that they might exacerbate the already-challenging labor market.  In surveys of members this summer, WCMA found that approximately 8 percent of all industry jobs are vacant, and that industry leaders have invested heavily to fill openings, with nearly 40 percent now offering signing bonuses of $500-$4,000 per person, and most increasing base wages.

There’s no question the workforce situation is fragile, and that public health strategies may cause strain. But, workplace outbreaks remain a threat to operations, to individual employees, and to a swift return to normal.

As you weigh your options, know that WCMA has information and connections to support your important work.