For months, food companies and trade groups have been sending letters and lobbying state and federal officials to secure vaccine prioritization for food workers in manufacturing plants.
"Worker absenteeism remains a concern in manufacturing facilities, posing a threat to the maintenance of consistent inventories of life-sustaining products," Michael Gruber, vice president of regulatory and government affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, wrote in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Without early vaccinations, the CPG sector risks the absence of skilled workers due to illness and the subsequent negative impacts on the supply chain."
Last Friday night, the FDA granted emergency authorization to Pfizer and BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine, and the first doses of the vaccine arrived on Monday. Then on Tuesday, the FDA cleared the path for the second vaccine, made by Moderna, to be authorized.
Now that vaccines are getting approved for emergency use, the urgency to secure their workers in the next phase is heightened.
Food plants, particularly meatpacking, were hit especially hard at the start of the pandemic, and as they await word on when exactly it will be possible to administer the vaccine to their workforce, they are preparing to be in the next group for distribution.
Pushing states, federal agencies for a plan
CDC documents show that the COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed in a phased approach. The first phase, which started distribution this week, is heading to healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
In the interim playbook, the CDC laid out that people who help to keep the "essential functions of society running," including food packaging and distribution workers, would likely be in the next phase. However, finalizing who exactly will be included in 1b and when is still being determined, and state governments are expected to be the ones deciding who goes next.
The Consumer Brands Association said in an email it has already sent letters to 41 states urging state and federal health officials to implement a comprehensive plan for distributing the vaccine to workforces and urging them to prioritize the industry in Phase 1b for vaccine allocation, following healthcare workers and first responders.
Katie McBreen, vice president of communications and research at CBA, said in an email that at this point, the states are focused more on executing Phase 1a and are still in listening mode for Phase 1b.
"It's our hope they will receive further federal guidance on how to prioritize Phase 1b," McBreen said.
Although shortages that occurred early in the pandemic have dwindled, CBA research found that 58% of consumers are still concerned about shortages happening again. "Consumer fears over access led to unprecedented panic-buying, confirming the critical nature of the industry’s role," Gruber said in the letter.
Randy Day, CEO of Perdue Farms, wrote in a letter last week to the CDC and 15 state governors where Perdue has operations to urge them to put meat and poultry workers, as well as their families and co-habitants, at the top of the list for vaccines in the next phrase. Perdue is also pushing for the CDC to develop a multi-state strategy for distribution and education to avoid confusion that patchwork state policies would create, Day said.
"To truly stop the spread of this virus, and to protect the men and women who continue to support our economy and food supply through their essential work, meat and poultry employees — and those who live with them — must be able to receive a vaccine as quickly as possible," Day wrote.
Among the meatpacking industry, more than 50,000 workers have been infected and at least 255 have died because of the coronavirus, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The virus has continued to spread among workers and their communities despite precautions, and many companies have faced accusations of mishandling outbreaks.
"Like other critical infrastructure sectors, the meat and poultry industry was among the earliest to face the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic," KatieRose McCullough, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, wrote in a letter to the CDC. "Placing meat and poultry plants at the top of the list for Phase 1b allocation can help maximize the health of the entire rural community because the establishment is often the town or county’s largest employer. Prioritizing meat and poultry workers also can help mitigate health inequalities given much of the workforce is comprised of minorities, immigrants, or those with lower socioeconomic status."
Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer at Smithfield Foods, said in an email that food and agriculture workers are critical to the "ongoing stability of society" and that is why they are a high priority for the vaccine.
Some state officials are already working to prioritize food workers. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said in a conference call in early December that meatpacking plants will be near the top of the priority list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, following healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities, according to Meat and Poultry. Last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said poultry plant workers will get the vaccine after frontline healthcare employees in the state.
Other state draft plans also show that food, manufacturing and agriculture workers would be in early phases, but the details vary. For example, Nebraska's plan lists food and agriculture workers in 1b, while California's interim draft plan puts agriculture, grocery and food industry workers in its general phase 1. Meanwhile, Indiana’s draft has foodservice and manufacturing workers in Phase 2 and Alabama’s plan also has food workers in Phase 2. In some, food workers who have prior medical conditions, who live in shared housing or who are over age 65 could also potentially get the vaccine sooner. Arkansas’ updated plan released Tuesday lists meatpacking and grocery workers in Phase 1b.
When it comes to finalizing those plans, 30 states are still working on more specific criteria for the next phases, according to KFF. Although the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices put out an interim recommendation for the initial phase to include healthcare workers and long-term care residents, it hasn’t yet released a recommendation for 1b.
Nikki Richardson, who works in corporate communications at JBS USA and Pilgrim's Pride, said they believe their workers will be in the next phase even though the specific details of a planned distribution are still being finalized.
While they wait, companies offer their help
From providing cold storage to partnering with health clinics, the food industry is gearing up to help with the vaccine’s distribution, if needed.
Smithfield’s Lombardo said the company is offering resources and expects to work with their health agency partners to facilitate the rapid distribution of the vaccine to food and agricultural workers.
"We stand ready as well to assist, as possible, with distribution to workers in other essential categories through our site-based health care facilities. Additionally, we have assessed our ultra-low freezer capabilities and capacity and are ready and willing to assist health agencies should storage capacity become constrained," Lombardo said.
Richardson of JBS and Pilgrim's Pride said the companies "have purchased freezers for vaccine storage, and our trucks and logistics teams are prepared to support the states if needed."
At Perdue, Day said in the letter that the company communicates daily with a diverse workforce, where more than a dozen languages are spoken, and offered to support the CDC and state governments with multilingual education and information dissemination about the vaccination.
Will companies be able to require a vaccine?
Once the food industry is able to get the vaccine, distrust from some workers could pose a problem that companies are starting to think about now. People of racial or ethnic minorities were some of the most impacted by the outbreaks in meat plants, and distrust of the vaccine could be an issue when vaccinating the workforce.
A recent global survey found that 61.4% of employees said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if their employer recommended it. But an FDA analysis of the Pfizer vaccine found "no specific safety concerns."
"There is a lot of distrust in the vaccine, even though it is likely highly safe and effective," said Lawrence Gostin, a co-author on the study and global health law professor at Georgetown University.
So one major question companies are asking now as they wait for the vaccine to be distributed to their workers: Can employers mandate the vaccine if workers don’t want to take it? Gostin said in an email he expects employers at least in certain sectors to mandate the vaccine and thinks it would be lawful to do so.
Brett Coburn, a labor and employment partner with law firm Alston & Bird, said that while generally it is legal to mandate a vaccine, there are some exceptions. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination so employers would need to provide for religious accommodations and accommodations for those with medical conditions, like an allergy.
Companies will also need to negotiate with the unions that represent its workers, because "it can't just come in and require union-represented employees to get the vaccine without bargaining about that," Coburn said.
"I think this is a really delicate issue because employers are, of course, saying, we would like for our employees to be vaccinated because it will make the workplace safer, it will allow us to get back to normal or some version of normal sooner, but there's just the practical reality that a lot of people in this country are going to be reluctant to get the vaccine and that's, of course, driven by a lot of different things," Coburn said.
Coburn said although employers may have the right to vaccine their workforce, it might not make the most sense. He said employers may look to instead incentivize employees to get the vaccine, make it accessible to workers and provide educational information.
"Employers just have to be realistic about the fact that a lot of employees may be unwilling to do this, and you need to think about, OK well if I mandate this and a material portion of my workforce refuses to get it, what am I going to do? Am I going to fire one-third, one-fourth of my workers over this? Or am I going to have a different approach?" Coburn said.
For now though, companies are first prioritizing getting the timeline for when their workers will receive the vaccine before making any major decisions.
Richardson said the companies' preventive measures will stay in place, including testing, until it is clear that the vaccine is effective in preventing spread of the virus.
“We are collaborating closely with state and local health officials, as well as our partner clinics and pharmacy networks to ensure that our team members are able to access the vaccine as early and efficiently as possible,” Richardson said.