'They don’t care': Is worker safety being sacrificed to keep poultry plants running?

Maddy Lauria
Delaware News Journal

Right around the same time Georgetown Mayor Bill West started sounding the alarm for the impending coronavirus crisis that's now hitting Sussex County, reports started to spread about positive cases at Delaware’s poultry plants.

But soon after the first three positive cases were confirmed by Perdue Farms and Mountaire Farms, which together own four of Delaware’s six processing plants, a Perdue Farms spokeswoman said the company would no longer confirm additional cases “out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines.”

So, now it is unclear how many cases are spreading through Delaware's six poultry processing facilities in Milford, Georgetown, Harbeson, Millsboro and Selbyville – among the same communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

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That's left workers still clocking in fearful that they're going to get sick — or bring the virus home.

"I would like to know the cases that they have just to be on the safe side," said one Delaware chicken plant employee who did not wish to be identified for fear of job repercussions. "I just want to be safe as far as going to work. That’s what I want. I can’t work in an environment that’s not safe. No one would want to, or nobody with sense would want to."

In March and April, Perdue and Mountaire officials said they were implementing additional safety measures: checking temperatures, requiring face shields to be worn, offering temporary pay raises and expanded sick leave policies.

Allen Harim, which operates the two other processing plants has not responded to repeated requests for information.

“We are already doing everything possible to stop the spread of the virus,” Mountaire Farms spokeswoman Catherine Bassett said in an email. “We are encouraging our employees to be safe at home by continuing social distancing, wearing a mask when out in public, and monitoring their health along with their family members and getting medical help as soon as any concerns arise.”

But employees who spoke with The News Journal said some of those measures weren't enough to protect workers or weren't implemented early enough.

That may have been the case for one southern Delaware family of six that were infected after one of them, a chicken plant employee, likely brought an infection home from work.

"Because of someone's negligence others were infected," the man's 38-year-old partner told The News Journal last week. "They need to be more cautious."

Chicken plant employees earn low wages for labor-intensive work on processing lines where they work in close quarters to de-bone and cut chicken meat, package products, switch shifts, walk through hallways and take lunch breaks.

As staffing at those plants dropped in recent weeks and employees heard rumors of co-workers getting sick from COVID-19 or others on short-lived quarantines, they've wondered how many cases it might take to shut the plants down.

In the eyes of the federal government, it doesn't matter how many cases there are. These plants are "critical" to the American food supply and cannot close.

A Perdue truck leaves the Georgetown chicken processing plant Thursday.

In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep those "critical" meat processing plants open even as illnesses spiked and some companies closed.

“This is not a time for politics. Lives are on the line. This is a life or death situation,” said Jonathan Williams with the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union Local 27 that represents workers at two Delaware poultry plants. “It’s completely inappropriate to put profits or politics before peoples’ lives.”

Deemed essential

While people with COVID-19 symptoms are being told to shelter at home for up to 14 days, some essential workers are being told they can continue working until it’s confirmed they have the virus that has killed more than 65,000 Americans.

Guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late April states that meat and poultry processing workers may be permitted to work following potential exposure to the novel coronavirus — “provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”

An employee at Mountaire Farms’ Selbyville processing plant said that while management has stepped up protections in recent weeks, it’s too little too late.

“We’ve never been 6 feet away from each other,” said the employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. “It’s not going to be perfect, but what bothers me – and I’m sure it bothers all the other employees there – they did this way too late, after people had been getting sick.”

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Workers stand close together on a poultry processing line as shown in this photo from a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Within the last month or so, the employee said, Mountaire installed plastic dividers between employees on processing lines. Company officials said they’ve also been taking temperatures and sending feverish employees home, made face masks and face shields mandatory at processing plants, increased cleaning and sanitation efforts, and expanded sick leave policies and implemented pay raises for hourly staff, among other efforts.

But some employees say they're seeing gaps.

“When we’re in the hallway, between rotations of day and night shift, we’re all crumbled up together,” the employee said. “I really believe the only reason why they’re doing this stuff right now is because they want employees to come work so they can supply their chicken.”

A woman peers from the wellness center entrance of the Perdue chicken processing plant in Georgetown Thursday.

Another Mountaire Farms’ Selbyville employee said the lack of information being shared by the company makes the situation worse. Without knowing who’s infected, there’s no way to figure out their risk.

The employee earned $13 an hour before the $1 temporary raise.

“They don’t care about the folks in there,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified. “They lie so much, I don’t even believe what they say.” 

Not just a language barrier

State officials also rented out at least two hotels in the Georgetown area to house the homeless and anyone who needs to isolate.

Except some who work in the poultry plants don't want to be separated from their families and familial responsibilities, Georgetown's West said. As of late April, only about a dozen people had taken up the offer to quarantine on the state's dime. 

“They’re a key part of our supply chain in the food industry. We’ve gotta figure out a way to make this work,” said Seaford Mayor David Genshaw. “But it’s not just the poultry industry. Construction crews, landscapers, dog food plants – it’s multiple industries – these folks aren’t just working in one industry. They are a part of our community, so we’ve gotta figure it out.”

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One reason may be because emergency managers, public officials and front-line workers don’t truly understand the Latino communities that are being hit the hardest, said Diego Fernandez Otegui, a Ph.D. candidate in Disaster Science and Management at the University of Delaware.

“This may be the first time in history that we’re literally running out of options," said Otegui, who is originally from Argentina and is also a board member of the International Humanitarian Studies Association. "In other times, other circumstances, you do have the option to ask for money from a friend back home, or to travel back home, or work in construction or find another income, which is not the case right now.”

Sussex County is seeing a disproportionate number of Latinos testing positive for COVID-19, according to state health data, which releases case rates by zip code. 

For every 1,000 people in Sussex County, about 3.3 non-Hispanic, white residents have tested positive, higher than the state average.

Positive cases among Hispanic or Latino residents in Sussex are at a rate of about 56.7 per 1,000 people – among the highest of any group in the state. That rate is even higher—92.3 cases per 1,000 people—in the 19947 zip code that includes the Georgetown area, according to state data as of May 7.

While the phrases “stay at home” and “wash your hands” might literally translate easily from one language to another, the ramifications behind those precautions may not be hitting the Latino communities in the same way they are perceived by others, Otegui said.

If a worker has a family to financially support in America and in their home country, not going to work can be far worse than getting sick. 

“It’s language, but it’s the meaning we assign to things,” he said. “The issue is you have to understand all the life circumstances that surround their daily decision-making and how they behave.”

Keeping an eye on the food supply

These problems are not just happening in Delaware. Gov. John Carney has joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in asking the federal government for help with the COVID-19 cases pouring out of Delmarva chicken plants and disproportionately impacting minority communities, the Washington Post reported.

On Delmarva, the poultry industry employs more than 20,000 people and 1,300 farmers as well as other related businesses, said Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. spokesman James Fisher. In 2019, the industry generated $3.5 billion in value, DPI data show.

“We must be clear about what the closure of Delaware’s six chicken processing plants, even if temporary, would mean,” Fisher said, suggesting that it would cause farmers to kill chicken flocks, leave thousands unemployed and threaten farmers' livelihoods. “And it would undoubtedly lead to shortages of chicken sold on Delmarva.”

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USA Today has reported that outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have shuttered an alarming number of America’s meatpacking facilities in recent weeks, with at least 4,400 workers falling ill across 80 plants, causing 28 to close for at least one day, according to data compiled by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Experts have said that, regardless of Trump's order to keep these plants open, meat shortages are expected.

Beyond the economics, the industry also holds a lot of political power, as companies like Mountaire Corp. and Tyson alone spend millions of dollars a year on lobbying and political campaign contributions, according to data from OpenSecrets.org.

“There’s always been a huge disconnect for people on how their food makes it into a grocery store,” said Mountaire’s Bassett. “It doesn’t just magically appear. An entire workforce of people from a farmer to a food production worker make it happen. Many more lives would be impacted and this crisis would be far worse if our country runs out of food.”

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, mlauria@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.