BELTON, TX — A case of coronavirus has been confirmed at the local Frito-Lay distribution center in Bell County. With other employees quarantined, the company never announced it to the public.
25 News received a tip of the case after a text message was sent on April 28th to employees by Distribution Manager Rob Speed. Part of that message to the workers at the Belton plant said, "Team we have had a whse worker test positive COVID-other workers have been quarantined."
"I would advise a company, especially a company with a well-known household name brand to take the immediate steps of making sure that their work environment is exactly as safe as it can possibly be for each and every employee in the building," said Mark Hayes, a crisis communications expert and CEO of Mark Hayes Consulting.
Ten days after that text was sent out, Frito-Lays Regional Safety Manager Darrell Riley received a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), stating an "employer is not following CDC guidelines in the workplace, exposing workers to the coronavirus."
Hayes says this isn't the first time he has seen a situation like this.
"From athletic institutions to oil companies to automobile manufacturers, your trust can slip away and erode in a heartbeat if you're not careful about managing the brand and protecting the people that make the brand what it is," he said.
On May 28th, Frito Lay's PR Manager Natalie Ilseng denied the positive test. Later that day, after showing her a copy of the OSHA letter, she said, "We remain confident in the accuracy of our statement and reiterate no employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Frito-Lay facility in Belton, Texas."
To that, Hayes has this advise for companies.
"It's better for us to be out in front of it than for it to come out in a leak or for one of our employees to release that information without us telling the public that we are taking every single precaution to keep our employees safe," he said.
Our numerous calls to Sales Director of Frito-Lay Lance Gunn went unanswered. When we contacted the Bell County Health District June 1st regarding the positive case, they replied, "Yes, there was just one case associated with the facility."
When it comes to companies keeping the trust they've earned from the public and employees, being honest upfront is the safest and smartest road to take, says Hayes.
"We have to remember that without these workers, we are nothing more than just another name brand. But these folks have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the brand and to making the brand as best as it can be. The least we can do is make sure that we protect them in the time of a global pandemic," said Hayes.
Almost two and a half months from when the initial text went out to employees in Belton, Ilseng sent 25 News a statement this past Monday. In part, it says, "We can confirm that an employee at our Belton, Texas, Frito-Lay distribution center has tested positive for COVID-19 within the last ten days."
Hayes has this advice for companies who encounter a coronavirus case in the future.
"At this point, you don't want to play with the coronavirus and safety of your workers," he said.
We did ask Ilseng if there are now two confirmed cases and she told us this is the first confirmed molecular positive test of COVID-19 at the Belton facility.
Frito-Lay said it conducted a deep cleaning of affected areas within the facility and that there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.