Many not operating at full capacity
The local chicken industry is straining under the weight of COVID-19 cases.
According to Holly Porter, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, all of Delmarva’s chicken processing plants remain open and are producing chicken. However, many are not operating at full capacity.
“Reduced employee attendance at meat processing plants is an issue across the U.S. during this unusual time,” she said.
Porter told multiple media groups that one Delmarva chicken producer was forced to “depopulate” two million chickens, but declined to name the company. An April 8 memo, originally made public by radio host Dan Gaffney, seemed to indicate it was Allen Harim.
“We are no longer able to harvest the amount of birds needed daily or weekly to maintain target weights and ages,” Allen Harim Director of Live Operations Michele Minton wrote to growers. “Starting Friday, April 10, we will begin depopulating flocks in the field.”
Allen Harim has operations in Harbeson, Millsboro and Seaford. Phone calls to the company were not returned.
Perdue Farms is the fourth largest chicken producer in the country.
In March, the company confirmed two coronavirus cases at its Milford plant, which shut down for 24 hours for a thorough cleaning. Perdue also has plants in Georgetown and Seaford.
“Perdue Farms responded swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 in order to protect and support our associates,” said Diana Souder, director of corporate communications at Perdue.
The company implemented “extensive incremental cleaning and safety measures” in early March, according to Souder. Those include temperature checks, face masks and partitions between workers.
Also in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Perdue gave hourly employees a $1/hour raise and free chicken products to take home and expanded paid-time-off policies.
“Because this pandemic has caused many of our associates to cancel their vacation or personal time off, we have temporarily removed the PTO accrual maximum for all associates until June 1,” Souder said.
Sussex’s other chicken giant is Mountaire Farms, which ranks seventh in the nation for production. They also confirmed a coronavirus case, at the company’s Selbyville plant, in March. Mountaire also has operations in Millsboro.
Mountaire has enacted measures similar to Perdue, like temperature checks, partitions, flexible time off policies, a $1 an hour raise and free chicken.
In addition to face masks, Mountaire employees now have plastic protectors over their faces. Some employees already wore them, attached to their “bump hats,” which are a step down from hard hats. When the pandemic began, Mountaire installed the plastic protectors on all bump hats.
“Like other manufacturing companies, this virus has been a challenge to try to prevent,” said Mountaire Director of Communications Catherine Bassett. “Our company has been incredibly proactive.”
Bassett said the biggest challenge at Mountaire has been employee attendance.
“They’ve been impacted by it and our attendance reflects that,” she said. “But for the most part our attendance has come back up. We think for most folks have already been exposed to it and it’s already behind them.”
State steps in
Delaware’s chicken plants are concentrated in Sussex County. Within them, chicken processors work close to one another. That may be one reason Sussex has the most coronavirus cases.
“We are not exactly sure why we are seeing hotspots of COVID-19 in Sussex County. We know there are large numbers of people who live and work in close contact, but that situation occurs in the City of Wilmington, which doesn’t seem to have the same high rate of cases,” said Stacey Hofmann, representing the Delaware Division of Public Health’s Joint Information Center.
As of April 30, Sussex had 2,216 cases of COVID-19, compared to 759 in Kent and 1,734 in New Castle, or, about half of the state’s total. Sussex County has about a quarter of the state’s population.
Hofmann warned the number of positive cases in Sussex will continue to grow, partially due to the testing that was recently implemented by the state at poultry processors.
“As the largest employers in Sussex, we knew that partnering with the poultry industry was the best way to get to the largest number of people tested and ensure that the communities were safe,” she said. “With the increased testing to address these hotspots, we will see large increases in positive cases.”
In addition to free coronavirus testing, the state is giving poultry workers “care kits” with items like sanitizer, bandanas, thermometers and educational materials. Housing is being provided to workers and other essential employees who need to isolate away from their families.