KANSAS CITY ((B)--A seasonal pinch in the packing plant labor force is crimping production at many U.S. plants. And though it may be worse this year because of apocalyptic fears surrounding the change to the year 2000, producers kind of plan for it so that meat supplies are not affected adversely. There are industry reports that many packing plant employees, especially those working a long way away from their families, are short on staff around the Christmas season. Many employees either take vacation time, unpaid leaves, quit or simply leave town in order to travel to their families.

Some reports say these employees find it easy to reclaim their jobs after Christmas, with many simply showing up as if nothing had happened. Packers tolerate this, trade sources said, because it is difficult to replace any volume of trained employees. It would cost more to put untrained employees on the line than it would to put up with the aggravation of the unannounced leaves. Normally, the employees trickle back to work the week after Christmas, and the plants are pretty much back at full staff by the New Year's holiday, trade sources said. But this year, fears of major natural and man-made catastrophes that are linked to the change to the year 2000 have kept many at home for an extra week, at least, limiting the number of cattle and hogs packers can buy and keeping a lid on prices.

But in actuality, the situation isn't that exciting, packing plant spokesmen said. Mark Klein, public affairs official for Cargill Inc., owner of Excel Beef, said a drawdown in employee numbers took place this year, just as it has for many years. He would not compare numbers from this year to other years but said the number of employees involved is not large.

"The weather in any given year will affect kill rates more than this," Klein said. It also is true, Klein said, that many employees return to Excel after the holidays, but he didn't think they could just show up to reclaim their jobs. Many come back to a different plant and apply for jobs there. And if they are qualified for an open position, Excel can't deny them a job. The company is able to compensate for the seasonal absenteeism because human resources personnel usually know from floor supervisors which employees plan to be gone. Few leave without some kind of notice.

Gary Mickelson, manager of communications for IBP Inc., said the company typically has some who take vacation, a leave or simply quit at this time of year, resulting in some loss of productivity. Some plants have seen more of this than usual this year, but he declined to elaborate how much more or which plants were involved. However, once the holiday season is over, IBP expects things to return to normal, Mickelson said.

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