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Meatpacker, union work together to create employee primary care clinic

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JBS USA's plant in Grand Island

JBS packing plant in Grand Island, Neb.

Working at the JBS USA beef plant in Grand Island, Jeff Fulton has seen a lot of blood, sweat and pain, 29 years of it, through four owners.

His job is to remove the metal shackles from the legs of the slaughtered steer so the hide can be pulled from the carcass. Like many tasks in a slaughterhouse, it's tough and can be dangerous. Shackles have dropped on his hands and forced him into light duty for a few weeks.

Danger is always around under the best of circumstances in a packing plant, where people with very sharp knives dismantle massive beasts, 390 animals an hour at JBS in Grand Island, into the form that becomes familiar to most people only on the dinner table.

Staying healthy is part of the challenge in an industry — producing red meat — that is Nebraska's largest. That's not to mention all the other nonprofessional health hazards that follow people through their lives, wherever they work, chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, and so on.

The union that represents 2,700 people who work at the plant in Grand Island, and the company that owns the plant, have agreed to a new way to handle the health care of those employees and their families, an estimated 5,000 people.

In a move that managers and union officials and employees such as Fulton see as a groundbreaker for the industry, maybe even other industries, JBS will open a primary care health clinic for those employees.

This will not be not an onsite company-run office for plant injuries and emergencies, which the company already has, but an offsite "medical home," a medical practice run by an outside contractor where employees and family members covered by the self-insured company's health policy can choose to go without charge for primary care and management of chronic conditions. The employee will still pay a share of the company's health insurance, but less money for the option of using the clinic than for the option of using medical services elsewhere.

United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 293, which represents people at several Nebraska meat plants, and JBS USA, owned by the Brazilian company JBS, the biggest meat company in the world, are leading this initiative. JBS and the UFCW made the first agreement for a Worthington, Minnesota, pork plant clinic in June. The Grand Island beef plant is second, the contract just approved by the union.

The motivations are simple: improved health for employees, lower costs for the employer self-insuring their health.

"Everybody sounds like they want to give it a try," said Fulton, a chief steward for the union. "It's gonna save everybody money. Our insurance right now, the copay is $30, I think, and goes up to $35. Every time you go to the clinic you'll be saving. If you go three or four times a year or if you have kids, it costs a lot. You're gonna save yourself a lot of money, especially a family.

"And if everybody uses this and the company is saving money, the employees won't be paying so much for insurance. I'm just glad JBS is doing this and being a leader. ... Somebody's gotta take the lead. Insurance is so high it's getting ridiculous. Back in '85, a lot of us had regular insurance and didn't pay a dime for it. Now all your big businesses are self-insured. It's changed a lot in 29 years."

Indeed it has, and Chris Gaddis, head of human resources for JBS USA, knows only too well.

"We can't just hope for the best any more," Gaddis said. "You're going to see every major employer try to do something. ... We've come to the realization that with these skyrocketing costs you gotta do whatever you can to try to get your arms around employee care.

"The only certainty shared among anybody in (employment) benefits is that the status quo is not sustainable," Gaddis said. "I mean, truly, we've come to realize, as have our competitors, as have others in heavy manufacturing, the status quo is not sustainable. It's bad business.

"The idea of a patient-centered medical home is something a lot of people are talking about," Gaddis said. "We could talk about it for the next 10 years. But we've partnered with UFCW to take a shot and see if we can't make a difference, really improve the health of our work force, and in so doing, drive down some of the cost."

This is not the first. Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, has a health care clinic. In Grand Island, too, IH Case, the farm machinery manufacturer, started a health care clinic years ago, and still has it. Some Lincoln businesses also have established clinics. 

But this is the biggest meatpacker in the world, and the biggest meatpacking union, and it's clear their industry and others will be watching as JBS plans to move this model to other sites, for example, Greeley, Colorado, its U.S. home.

Each side is giving the other a bow. "I'm giving the union credit," Gaddis said. "The union brought the idea to us, almost as if they think we're more progressive than some of our competitors. ... Right now, we're the only one proceeding in our industry with the idea."

The risk is that it won't work as well as hoped, which could cost both the company and the employees more money to insure health.

So be it, says Gaddis.

"The great thing about JBS," he said, "is we're expected to innovate, to take calculated risks in an effort to accomplish big improvement. We got excited about it. How best to do it? Who are we going to partner with? A third-party clinic. (Employees) need to know there are no ulterior motives here. So it needs to be a third-party clinic."

The company is now evaluating candidates, hospital networks, boutique clinic providers.

For its part, the union acknowledges and compliments JBS's willingness to do this. Although violent strikes are distant history, the meat industry has never been known for labor-management peace and tranquility.

"I applaud JBS, for taking the step to be the first," said Mark Lauritsen, international vice president of UFCW and director of the food processing and meatpacking division. "It's hard to be the first."

Gaddis attributes that willingness to the Batista family, the Brazilians who own JBS, their values, and how they expect business to be done.  

The history of the Grand Island beef plant is scarred with the recollections of the infamous federal immigration raids on Hispanic employees of 2006, before JBS bought the plant, and the East African employees' demonstrations more recently. About 70 percent of the employees are Hispanic, according to Local 293.

JBS USA, which has more than 60,000 employees in the U.S., signed an agreement two years ago with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure its workforce was legal. 

Lauritsen is now focused on how this health care model will work for the employees and their families. A family doctor, ordinarily, might see a few thousand patients, Lauritsen said, and 85 percent of a family's medical costs is that family doctor. In this new model, "concierge medicine" has come to the working family, Lauritsen said, no one of the doctors will have more than 800 patients.

"That allows the doctor to deliver better health care," Lauritsen said. "Now you have time to sit and talk to them, to get in to see the doctor the next day. I think that's the key to managing someone's care, the doctor can actually spend time with them. There are a lot of upsides here for everybody."

With a new five-year labor contract, better pay and a health care model that all sides appear to believe in, the JBS plant appears to be in the front of what Lauritsen sees as a much better future for the entire meatpacking industry.

"We've actually talked to just about every player in the industry about this model," Lauritsen said. "The industry sees it as we see it, good for the employee and the company. A great retention tool. We'll see more in the industry develop same type of model. I can't think of anybody who's said, 'We aren't going to do it.'"

But he wasn't ready to identify the next company to step up.

"I think the one in Nebraska most interested is probably in that delicate time where they don't want to talk about it," Lauritsen said. "I remember the good old days. I think a large percentage wants to build us back to the good old days, go back to jobs people wait in line to get. I think we're headed in that direction."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or at dpiersol@journalstar.com. On Twitter @RichardPiersol.

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