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Poultry plants underreporting COVID-19 cases, putting workers at risk, sources say

Tina Vasquez April 23rd, 2020
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As Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota revealed itself to be one of the nation’s largest known coronavirus clusters with more than 700 workers infected, news of processing plant outbreaks began to emerge nationwide—including multiple facilities in Central North Carolina, home to companies like Mountaire Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson Foods. The number of workers infected by the coronavirus in Central North Carolina appears far larger than what companies are reporting, according to a hospital employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mountaire Farms has publicly confirmed 20 COVID-19 cases at two of its locations in North Carolina—including 11 cases at the company’s Siler City plant and nine cases at its Lumber Bridge location. Pilgrim’s Pride confirmed in a statement to Prism that multiple employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at “some” of the company’s facilities, including its Sanford, North Carolina, plant; however, Pilgrim’s Pride spokesperson Cameron Bruett would not reveal the number of employees who have contracted the virus. Tyson Foods, which has been forced to indefinitely suspend operations at processing plants nationwide due to large coronavirus outbreaks in its facilities, has also failed to inform the public of the total number of its employees who have tested positive, including those at its Sanford, North Carolina, poultry processing plant. The company did not respond to Prism’s request for comment, though it has publicly confirmed the deaths of six employees due to COVID-19 across two locations in rural Georgia and Iowa, the latter of which resumed operations this week after a large outbreak forced the facility to close. 

While the public numbers tell one story, the reality on the ground is quite different, according to Ilana Dubester, executive director of El Vínculo Hispano, an organization in Siler City that has served rural Latino populations in Chatham, Alamance, Randolph, and Lee counties for 25 years.

On Facebook, Dubester told poultry processing plant workers to contact her organization if what they were experiencing differed from local news reports, which tend to uncritically recycle talking points provided by the companies. Almost immediately she received messages from families reporting that they were sick. There have been “too many calls to keep track of,” the executive director said, and what she is hearing doesn’t gel with the small number of cases the plants are reporting to the public. During an unprecedented public health crisis when thousands of people nationwide have lost their lives to COVID-19 and thousands more are at risk of becoming gravely ill each day, Dubester said now is not the time to withhold information from the public.

Latinx people make up a large percentage of North Carolina’s rural agricultural communities. In Siler City, for example, they’re 50% of the town’s population. The coronavirus has been particularly deadly for low-income people of color, especially Latinx people and immigrant communities—the same communities that account for a significant portion of the workforce at meat processing plants nationwide.

The lack of transparency about outbreaks at these facilities is “dangerous,” Dubester said.

‘All of a sudden they stopped talking to us’

On April 13, Mountaire Farms posted a notice to employees at the Siler City plant informing them that three workers had tested positive for the coronavirus. A Mountaire employee shared a copy of the notice with El Vínculo Hispano. Dubester later learned from Mark Reif, the North Carolina community relations manager for Mountaire Farms of North Carolina, that by the time Mountaire released information related to the initial three cases, those cases were already between four and six weeks old. In an April 18 call with Dubester, health department officials, and others from the city, Reif confirmed 11 cases at the Siler City poultry processing plant.

“It seems they waited weeks to tell us about the first three cases; they staggered the information for some reason,” Dubester said. “It’s not right and it doesn’t feel fair. This is a moment when we need all hands on deck. We need to have good communication. But the truth will come out. This is a small town and we are in touch with employees at the plant. They will tell us what’s happening inside.”

Part of the problem, however, is that both workers and the larger Siler City community are being left in the dark. “Rosa,” who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, is a worker at Mountaire Farms’ Siler City poultry processing plant where she works deboning chicken. She told Prism that Mountaire is failing to communicate with employees about the size and scope of the outbreak at the facility. She learned that 11 of her co-workers tested positive by seeing it on the news April 22.

“We didn’t hear anything from them directly since they told us that three people had tested positive,” Rosa said with the help of an interpreter. “We only learned of the new cases because of the news. I’m concerned why they aren’t giving us the news or updates. All of a sudden they stopped talking to us.”

Rosa said she believes the reason Mountaire isn’t communicating with employees is because they fear the bad publicity and they don't want people to stop coming to work. After the company announced the initial three confirmed COVID cases, Rosa said that elderly workers and parents stopped coming to work en masse, afraid of contracting the virus or making their families sick. Many can’t afford to stop working, but they live in multigenerational homes and the risk was “too high,” Rosa said.

The demographics of the Siler City plant are mixed, according to Rosa, who said most of the workforce are immigrants, some as young as 18 years old and others as old as their mid-60s. Two Mountaire employees who worked in Rosa’s department have tested positive in recent weeks, one of whom is her friend, a woman in her mid-30s who also worked deboning chicken. Based on a phone conversation the two had on Monday, the woman is not doing well.

It’s unclear if the two cases Rosa is familiar with are a part of, or separate from, the 11 cases Mountaire has publicly confirmed.

Companies choose whether to inform the public

The Chatham County Public Health Department, which encompasses Siler City, will not release information regarding the number of positive COVID cases emerging from Mountaire Farms or other processing plants as the information becomes known to them. COVID-19 is a reportable disease, meaning that medical providers are required to notify the public health department of positive tests; however, test results specific to a place of employment are considered protected health information.

According to a statement to Prism from the Chatham County Public Health Department, the health department can only discuss information related to cases emerging from a company if the company publicly discloses the cases first. In other words, if Mountaire Farms chooses not to inform the public of the scope of the outbreak in Siler City, which has potentially deadly consequences for employees, their families, and local residents, then the county health department cannot inform the public of the number of cases originating at Mountaire.

“I don’t think it’s about protecting the privacy of the workers. They can share the number of cases without revealing anyone’s names or personal information,” Rosa said. “I think it’s more about protecting the company. When the first cases [at Mountaire] came out, people were making very bad comments on social media. But by not telling us or the public, they are exposing us to the virus. They should speak honestly to us. They need to tell the public the truth. They could have closed the plant and started testing if they really cared about stopping the propagation of the disease.”

Beginning Thursday, large-scale testing began to take place at Mountaire’s Siler City location, which may lead to a “surge” in newly identified cases. Chatham County public health director Layton Long, told Prism in a statement that the testing will be carried out by the North Carolina National Guard and Piedmont Health Services with the support of the Chatham County Public Health Department and Chatham County Emergency Management. Prior to Thursday, rumors circulated in Siler City that the National Guard would help carry out testing. When the National Guard was sent to South Dakota to assist with testing at Tyson Foods, it helped reveal the true scope of the outbreak. But it’s a double edged sword, Dubester said. She’s concerned that the presence of the National Guard may frighten undocumented community members.

Still, the large-scale testing is needed. According to an analysis from USA Today, “meatpacking plants will become the next disaster zones” for the coronavirus. The analysis found that more than 150 of the nation’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest. These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork, and poultry processing plants and rates of infection in counties where there are plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties.

At the Mountaire testing site, health department officials are prioritizing the testing of employees, contractors, and their families who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, though a recent study found that people are most infectious right before they start to show any symptoms at all.

Growing concern about working conditions, job security

The announcement of the testing comes just one week after workers at Sanford’s Pilgrim's Pride plant and Siler City’s Mountaire Farms facility went public with their concerns regarding their working conditions during the pandemic. A petition was also circulated online demanding that Mountaire workers—including temporary workers—have a job to come back to if they decide to stay home to avoid contracting the virus.

Pilgrim’s Pride told Prism that “no one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” which is different from ensuring that people who are not sick but miss work out of fear of contracting the virus will have a job to return to.

Both Pilgrim’s Pride and Mountaire outlined a series of measures they say they have implemented to combat the coronavirus. Pilgrim’s Pride told Prism they are performing temperature checks on each employee that enters a facility, they have provided face masks, they are “promoting physical distancing,” and increasing sanitation, among other measures. Mountaire has taken near-identical measures, telling Prism they have also implemented “additional social distancing on production lines,” including the installation of plexiglass barriers “wherever possible.”

Rosa confirmed these measures have been implemented at Mountaire, but she questioned how helpful they will be given how production lines operate at the facility.

“When we work on the line, we can’t really distance ourselves,” Rosa said. “There is maybe 40 inches of separation between one worker and another. They put the plexiglass dividers in between us, but I don’t know what that will do. In my area, there are eight lines of workers with maybe 20 workers on each line. We are in large groups, standing next to each other.”

Rosa is a full-time employee of Mountaire and not one of the company’s many contract workers. Mountaire hires contract workers through an outside agency that has a staffing office within the company’s Siler City office space. While Mountaire has trumpeted the many benefits it has provided to its employees during the pandemic—including a $1 hourly pay raise and “relaxed attendance policies”—these benefits do not extend to contract workers. According to Rosa, contract workers did not receive the raise and they are given fewer sick days than full time employees.  

While Mountaire did not respond to Prism’s request for comment, Dubester said contract workers reported the same to El Vínculo Hispano, which continues to receive panicked calls and Facebook messages from workers in the area. The organization uses social media to disseminate information to workers in Spanish, which is especially important in light of the outbreak in South Dakota.Language barriers were recently cited as one of the reasons Smithfield Foods meat plant in South Dakota became a COVID-19 hotspot—40 languages are spoken at the plant, but workers were only given informational packets in English. At the Mountaire Farms plant in Siler City, the most common languages spoken are Spanish, English, and French Creole, according to Dubester.

There is also a great deal of confusion over testing. One contract worker received a bill for $500 after being tested for the coronavirus at nearby Chatham Hospital, which is part of the University of North Carolina Health Care System. Their result came back positive. UNC Health told Prism that it couldn’t comment on a specific patient’s bill, but that Chatham Hospital has posted the costs for COVID-19 testing online. Those with insurance will likely pay nothing at the hospital for testing, but contract workers at Mountaire are not covered by the company’s insurance plan. Those without insurance can receive a 40% discount for the price of the test at Chatham Hospital, according to UNC Health.

El Vínculo Hispano is continuing to encourage workers to contact them if safety measures are not being implemented by companies, if they are being threatened with termination for taking time off, or if they are experiencing other issues with Mountaire or the temp agency that hired them. Dubester has fielded “countless” calls and messages, she said. The community is scared and the lack of transparency is making matters worse. The executive director is trying to obtain specifics from Mountaire about the number of contract workers it has, which will give her a better understanding of the number of people in the community who will need additional support if they get sick. She has not been able to obtain those numbers, but she suspects it’s in the hundreds.

In Chatham County, there are health department officials, hospital administrators, health care workers, and processing plant officials who have concrete information about the scope of the COVID-19 outbreak that has the ability to ravage already vulnerable communities, but they are not talking—either out of fear for their own jobs or fear of upsetting companies like Mountaire, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson, who by virtue of the large number of residents they employ have become important pillars in the area.

In the end, the only people who would go on the record with Prism were Rosa and Dubester, two immigrant women in Siler City with the most to lose in speaking publicly about the issues facing workers at the poultry plants—a fact that Dubester said was “incredible and not acceptable.” For Rosa, the alternative to not speaking out means her co-workers will continue to go into work uninformed of the risk, which means more of her co-workers will get sick. She is worried that some may die. The virus spreads in silence, but Rosa said “people shouldn’t get sick in silence.”

Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.

Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling. Follow us on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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