‘I’m afraid to go back’: Poultry workers fear returning to work as COVID-19 spreads through plants

Tina Vasquez  |  Updated May 01, 2020 4:20am EST
The irony isn’t lost on “Maria” that she has to return to work at the Mountaire Farms meat processing plant on May 1, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day. Maria, who prefers to use a pseudonym, is one of Mountaire Farms’ many contract workers in Siler City, North Carolina, meaning she is not considered an employee of Mountaire, but rather the employee of a staffing agency that operates inside Mountaire. This means that even though she has spent more than a year working full time at the company deboning chicken legs, she gets paid less, has no health care or benefits, doesn’t receive overtime pay for working holidays, and has less sick time than American citizens who are considered direct employees of Mountaire.
After experiencing a series of worrying symptoms, Maria went to her doctor, who wrote her a note excusing her from work for two weeks. She didn’t have the coronavirus, but feared that stress was getting the best of her. Maria has two children, one of whom has severe asthma. Each day she returned from work, she was terrified she would infect her young children with the virus.
Maria told Prism she is still “shocked” the doctor’s note worked. Other contract workers have been terminated for wanting to take days off as the coronavirus sweeps through the Siler City facility. Maria said she was threatened with the same, but after alerting a local Spanish language news outlet of the conditions that contract workers are facing, the bad publicity put pressure on the staffing agency and Maria was able to get the time off.
“I still don’t know if I will return to work [May 1]. I’m afraid to go back,” Maria told Prism April 28. “I don’t want to leave my job, but I kept asking my manager to tell me how many people in my area were sick with the disease and he wouldn’t tell me. He said it was confidential and the plant wasn’t sharing that information. I didn’t want to know who they were; I just wanted to know if a lot of people in my area were sick and exposing me to the virus.”
‘They’re not protecting workers’
Over the last two weeks, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has exploded in rural Central North Carolina, where meat processing plants like Mountaire’s dot the landscape. According to one Chatham County hospital worker who spoke to Prism on condition of anonymity because they did not have authorization to speak to the media, large numbers of workers and their family members are showing up to health care facilities infected with COVID-19 and the disease has now spread far beyond the confines of processing plants.
“The numbers these companies are reporting to the public don’t make sense. The plants aren’t being open about the numbers,” the health care worker said.
While the companies that own these facilities are publicly reporting relatively low numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, data released by public health officials tell a different story. In Chatham County, cases have tripled. In Lee County, cases have multiplied by nine-fold. Across the state, rural areas have confirmed cases in the triple digits, in some instances rivaling counties that encompass North Carolina’s largest cities.  
The public only began to get a true glimpse of the outbreak last week when Piedmont Health Chief Executive Officer Brian Toomey confirmed to local media that Chatham County has seen a “huge spike in positive results” at their community health center in Siler City, coming from Mountaire Farms, Tyson Foods, and Pilgrim’s Pride. Last week in Siler City, after just two days of testing Mountaire workers, 74 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed.
Unlike Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, which have refused to publicly release information related to the number of COVID-19 cases at their Lee County poultry processing plants, Mountaire Farms initially made some effort to be transparent. As Prism reported April 23, the company confirmed 11 employees contracted the virus at its Siler City plant. However, after Mountaire accepted the health department’s offer to allow Piedmont Health and the North Carolina National Guard onsite to carry out testing of workers and their families last week, the company has stopped responding to media requests.
While the testing was needed, there are issues with how it was carried out. Of Mountaire’s nearly 1,600 workers, only 356 people were tested, and only workers and their family members experiencing symptoms were able to access tests. Mountaire workers who spoke to Prism said the company did not inform workers that free testing would be available, and one employee alleged that large numbers of potentially positive workers were excused from work the day before testing began in order to make the number of positive cases appear even lower.  
According to new guidance for meat and poultry processing plant workers and employers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), if a worker is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform anyone they have come into contact with, including fellow workers. According to Maria and other Mountaire workers who spoke to Prism, this isn’t happening.
Not only are poultry plants in Central North Carolina failing to be transparent with the public, but they are using laws intended to protect confidential health information to shut down questions from workers about whether they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.
Clermont Ripley is an attorney for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, which represents low-wage workers in the state and advocates for better enforcement of existing laws intended to protect workers. She told Prism the CDC’s guidance is clear.
“[Y]ou should notify employees if they have been exposed to other employees who have tested positive for COVID. This can absolutely be done without violating privacy provisions of the ADA, especially at a workplace as big as Mountaire,” Ripley said. “The problem is that CDC guidance isn’t enforceable and that most of our laws are employer-friendly and business-friendly and not about protecting workers. When companies refuse to provide this kind of information, they’re not protecting the privacy of workers—they’re protecting themselves.”
‘Disposable workers’
On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order and invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meatpacking plants open during the COVID-19 pandemic, though he does not have such legal authority under DPA.
To advocates, Trump’s executive order was yet another illustration of the president’s fundamental disregard for immigrant communities, the same population of people that largely keep the meatpacking industry running. The Guardian reported that one-third of meatpacking jobs are done by immigrants, “although that percentage is probably much higher.” During the coronavirus pandemic, there have been at least 18 reported worker deaths in the meatpacking industry and at least 6,300 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 98 plants in 28 states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, are disproportionately represented in these numbers.
“The meatpacking industry is already one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, with injury rates twice the national average and illness rates 15 times the national average,”  said Debbie Berkowitz, the program director for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project. “The Black, brown, immigrant, and refugee workers who are disproportionately represented in the meatpacking industry will bear the brunt of this dangerous decision.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric appealed to many American voters, and he drew the support of some of the nation’s largest poultry companies, including Mountaire Farms. The company was Trump's fifth-largest donor in the 2016 election. Ronald Cameron, CEO of Mountaire, personally gave Trump $2 million during the 2016 election. Earlier this month, Cameron joined Trump’s Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, an advisory group on reopening the economy during the pandemic.
The Trump administration has ushered in one of the most anti-immigrant periods in modern American history, while Trump businesses employ undocumented workers. Mountaire Farms also relies on undocumented workers, which has allowed the company to become one of the nation’s largest suppliers of poultry. Ripley said this is an example of “the huge hypocrisy” of the labor market.
“This whole notion now that there are essential workers that are needed to keep the economy going and keep us fed, but essential workers are treated as disposable and they are not respected as essential. And the fact that so many of these workers are undocumented, you can’t even begin to quantify the hypocrisy,” Ripley said. “Everything we’re seeing right now in the meatpacking industry is a workers’ rights issue, but whether or not it’s illegal is another question. We are asking many undocumented workers to risk their lives and the lives of their families to keep us fed, and we are not going to offer them any support. Unfortunately, employment laws often don’t track with general notions of justice and fairness.”
Maria said it is an injustice that she has to choose between keeping her children fed and keeping her children safe from the coronavirus.
Before Maria took time off of work, she noticed that many employees were missing from the lines at Mountaire. Departments that once had multiple lines of workers processing poultry were down to two. She said that without any information from supervisors, it was hard to know if people were simply missing work out of fear of contracting the virus or if they were sick at home with the virus. The 33-year-old mother estimates that she knows “at least 20” people, both workers and their family members, who have COVID-19.
Prism reached out to Maria April 30, in the hours before she was supposed to report to work at Mountaire. We wanted to know: Was she going to return?
In a late night text, Maria responded, “No voy a ir.” I will not go.
Read part two of Prism’s May Day coverage of the Mountaire Farms COVID-19 outbreak, where a former plant employee shares how she was let go after possibly contracting the virus and passing it on to her husband; and part three, a Q&A with Ilana Dubester of El Vínculo Hispano, a North Carolina organization that serves rural Latinx communities that are home to many meat processing plant workers. 
Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
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