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Migrant Meatpacking Workers Prepare Turkeys Amid COVID Clusters

'We are all working in fear'

Jessica spends her days wrist-deep in turkey. As one of thousands of meatpacking workers in North Carolina, she cuts their neck bones, removes the shanks, the crop, and the organs no one wants to be confronted with when they handle, prep or eat the bird.

She makes sure each fowl is sanitized before packaging, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with workers just like her, close to the Spanish-language signs that adorn the walls reminding them to “maintain at least six feet of distance from other people.”

But there are fewer and fewer of those people by the day, says the 50-year-old worker.

“A lot of people are getting sick,” alleged Jessica, who spoke through a Spanish translator. She requested North Carolina Health News not publish her last name out of fear of losing her job. “We’ve all been trying to meet their quotas, and working harder than we usually are, to fill in the gaps.”

meatpacking workers
There have been 41 COVID-19 clusters among meatpacking workers in N.C., the most of any state. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

As the holiday season draws near, many meatpacking workers are focusing their efforts on preparing the very poultry that will be the center of Thanksgiving and Christmas tables across the country. Workers like Jessica claim some are also dying in the process.

While the pandemic means Butterball’s famous hotline cooks will be working from home because of safety precautions this year, plant workers on the front lines don’t have the same opportunity.

Throughout this year, some of these employees have maintained that COVID-safety protocols and conditions are deplorable inside. NC Health News has identified at least one worker who has died of the virus. But Butterball is not alone in its alleged troubles.

As of Nov. 13, North Carolina, a top employer of meatpacking workers, has had 41 clusters of cases in an unknown number of workplaces, according to DHHS data. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting determined this was the most of any state with a meatpacking industry.  All told, the agency reports 4,047 cluster-associated cases in meat and poultry processing facilities.

As the virus surges again, problems have continued in these facilities, which account for 20 of the Tar Heel state’s current clusters.

“We are all working in fear,” said Jessica. “Because as much as people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, people that I knew have also died in this place.”

A Butterball spokesperson said the company takes safety matters “very seriously,” and provided detailed responses to NC Health News’ questions.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we have put in place special processes and procedures at all of our plants, including Mount Olive, to slow the spread of the virus, such as instituting strict sanitization protocols, social distancing requirements everywhere possible, plexiglass barriers and face shields in areas where social distancing may not be possible, required surgical-style face masks and body temperature screenings on entering the facility,” said the spokesperson, who asked to only be identified by his company affiliation. “We will continue to aggressively pursue initiatives that best protect our teams at work, based on the most current CDC and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidance, and remain committed to continuing to evaluate and implement best practices to mitigate the risks of the virus in our facilities.”

It’s unclear how many Butterball employees have died of COVID-19 because no state agency is required to disclose it to the public. Neither is the company.

Butterball declined to provide the number of its workers who have died of the novel coronavirus, citing “privacy reasons.”

Meatpacking workers make safety complaints at Butterball

The largest turkey processing plant in the world sits in the small town of Mount Olive in North Carolina. Butterball LLC is a major employer in the roughly 4,700-person town. People have migrated to the town for the plentiful work at the facility, including a large influx of about 3,000 Haitian immigrants who arrived in the last decade. Many of the other staff are people of color and immigrants.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump deemed meatpacking an essential industry, allowing processing plants to stay open — and workers to keep working — regardless of case counts outside.

Butterball’s Mount Olive factory, one of several company plants divided between North Carolina and Arkansas, first reported an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among workers on April 27.

The complaints began earlier, according to federal OSHA and North Carolina’s Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health (NC OSH) division documents obtained by NC Health News.

Butterball has been the subject of five complaints made to either OSHA or NC OSH about a lack of COVID-19 protections since the pandemic began — four are from North Carolina; three are specifically about conditions at the Mount Olive plant.

“There have been cases of COVID-19 in the plant,” an April 6 OSHA complaint reads. “One employee was taken out due to being sick. The employer has known for over a week. The employer is exposing employees to the virus and still wanting them to come to work.”

meatpacking workers
Mount Olive is home to a Butterball plant where many meatpacking workers have complained of lax safety guidelines and worker deaths. (Photo by Indy Beetle)

“Where there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the workforce: employees were not notified in a timely manner; the plant was not shut down and/or cleaned; and employees could still be exposed due to not practicing distancing, due to working close to each other,” details the next complaint, made by phone to NC OSH, on April 15.

“Employees’ health could be seriously harmed due to exposure to COVID-19 which, now they have 17 cases in the workforce, appears to be getting transmitted at the workplace,” a third OSH complaint reads on April 17. “There is concern that the virus is spreading due to employees working very close to each other.”

OSHA dismissed its April 6 complaint, and OSH dismissed all of its complaints, stating that the agency didn’t have the jurisdiction to enforce any action against these “alleged hazards.”

Instead, the state agency sent letters to Butterball, asking the company to investigate its own facilities.

“While your concern is understandable, it was determined the alleged hazard is not covered by an OSHA standard, nor would it meet the criteria for a General Duty Clause citation under NCGS 95-129 of the OSH Act of North Carolina,” said one response letter sent to a complainant on April 21. “We have sent a letter to the employer requesting they investigate your allegation and take any action necessary to ensure their COVID-19 policies and procedures are in accordance with the most current guidelines from Federal or State agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OSHA, and the Governor’s Office.”

The state has previously been criticized for this hands-off approach, and news reports throughout the summer featured Butterball workers alleging continued spread in their workplace.

Butterball team members who are concerned about their safety are encouraged to speak up to their plant’s human resources team, a Butterball spokesperson said, or via the company’s anonymous reporting line.

Unknown number of deaths among meatpacking workers

“The people that are now infected by the virus [at Butterball] are more than what they used to be,” said Esmeralda Dominguez of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, a local outreach organization that aids migrant workers and their families. “It’s not just a matter of who’s infected, it’s a matter of how many people might die.”

New accounts from current workers like Jessica raise questions about how much has changed at meatpacking plants since April.

“It’s been very tough recently,” said Jessica. “They provide masks and plastic protective equipment, but they have really little care on social distancing. We are shoulder to shoulder, working very close together. They have signs that say to take care and stay healthy, but there’s actually very little interest in our well-being. We could be talking in the group and whatnot, and they really don’t care as long as we are making sure that the output is good. So a lot of people are calling in sick.”

In response to these allegations, a Butterball spokesperson said that plant management is proactive about enforcing social distancing “where possible.”

Jessica countered that existing conditions have not stopped employees from dying.

“I know of two young men, and one lady that died three weeks ago that I worked closely with,” she said. “However, I’m aware that in other departments at the plant, people have also died. I do not know how many; I just know it’s been several. But they don’t make a lot of commotion about it.”

Tynasia Davis, a former cut-up line employee, quit her job at Butterball’s Mount Olive factory in October.

By that time, she herself had contracted COVID-19 once — and she believes she caught it at work.

“They weren’t too good at keeping employees aware of what was going on with COVID,” said Davis. “In mid-June, I came in contact with one of the employees who knew she had it, and instead of staying home and being quarantined, they were allowing her to come back to work after 14 days, even though she was still testing positive. I didn’t know she had it until I contracted it.”

Without knowledge of what Jessica told NC Health News, Davis also brought up worker deaths.

“From the time I started orientation, maybe two months in, there were three deaths at Butterball from COVID,” she said. “And I knew one of them personally.”

Davis said the company would publicly post the number of workers who had tested positive for the virus within the plant, but they would not share if someone had died.

“At Butterball, everybody interacts with everybody,” she said. “And you also have family members of those employees who passed away that live out there. And of course, they gave information, like that they caught COVID at work, and this is what happened.”

Tracey Kornegay, health director at the Duplin County Health Department, which originally worked with Butterball to announce an outbreak at the Mount Olive facility in April, declined to comment on deaths or cases at the plant, stating, “Butterball’s employees span from across a number of eastern N.C. counties.”

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Catie Armstrong declined to provide a number of Butterball workers who have died, stating the agency wanted to maintain trust between meatpacking facilities and the state.

And, though the Department of Labor has begun to publish work-related fatalities due to COVID-19 across all industries for Fiscal Year 20-21, it does not break down COVID deaths by sector and declined to break the death toll down by individual business.

But William Henry Moore, a 29-year-old who had worked at the Mount Olive factory for over a decade, was one of the Butterball employees who died. There’s no way to know where Moore, who had several risk factors, contracted the disease. He died of COVID-19 on May 26, according to a spokeswoman at the Pitt County Register of Deeds office, who reviewed his death certificate at NC Health News’ request.

Moore’s family declined to comment for this story.

Armstrong, the DHHS spokesperson, said it’s seen a “decline in overall cases and clusters of COVID-19 in meat-processing plants” in the last few months. Twenty active clusters among workers — about half of the total 41 clusters reported at NC meatpacking facilities — remain.

Clusters describe a setting in which five or more people have tested positive for the virus within a 14-day period; the state health agency does not provide the total number of people infected in each plant. DHHS, the Duplin County Health Department, and Butterball declined to provide the specific number of cases at the Mount Olive Butterball facility, though DHHS confirmed at least one active cluster is within Duplin County, where the facility resides.

Through her work, Dominguez said she often speaks with families who believe their deceased loved one caught the virus while working at a meatpacking job.

“Right now, personally, I am certain there have been two deaths in the [Butterball] plant,” she said. “One of the people I know was as recent as October 15; she contracted COVID-19 in the plant and died shortly after. But there have allegedly been six deaths — some people have not disclosed more things, because they’re scared.”

Dominguez said plant workers and family members may not report deaths to Butterball. She maintained the families don’t make a big deal out of deaths they believe originated at the factory to the larger community out of fear of retaliation.

“They are afraid because a lot of them are undocumented,” she said. “They are afraid because they might get severe consequences, cut off pay or just being plain fired, and they still have to take care of their family. Right now in our community, there’s a lot of fear going on.”

A total of 20 people who worked at meat-processing plants in North Carolina have died of COVID-19, according to DHHS. One of them died within the last two weeks, according to the health agency’s cluster report updated on Nov. 16.

As of that date, North Carolina ranked fourth in the nation for states with COVID-related meatpacking worker deaths.

No citations issued

Throughout the pandemic, the DHHS has argued it does not have the authority to regulate meat processing companies, which are not required to report to health departments when multiple employees test positive for COVID-19.

“For industries that are not required to report to NC DHHS, it is in the best interest of public health for private businesses to self-identify and work with NC DHHS so that we can help protect employees and communities by continuing to be able to provide technical assistance on mitigation strategies, educating employees about the virus and measures they can take, and providing on-site testing for those who have been exposed as well as for others in their households,” said the department’s Armstrong. “Because our priority is for food-processing facilities to self-identify when they have an outbreak, we want to maintain that trust between the facilities and the state.”

That responsibility instead falls on the N.C. Department of Labor, which runs OSH and is overseen by Cherie Berry, the commissioner of labor.

To date, OSH has not issued any citations related to COVID-19 to any meatpacking businesses. Neither the federal OSHA or the state OSH have enacted pandemic-specific regulations that businesses must follow.

A 2011 Mercy for Animals investigation went inside a North Carolina Butterball plant. (Photo courtesy of MFA)

According to Matthew Johnson, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University who studies what motivates companies to comply with health and safety regulations, North Carolina’s OSH could theoretically cite meatpacking businesses under a standard called the General Duty Clause, which broadly mandates workplaces must be free from hazards.

”But in practice, the General Duty Clause is invoked very rarely,” said Johnson.

Berry has said her agency has not issued any citations under this clause because the bar is too high — OSH would need to prove the virus originated in the workplace and show that the employer was responsible for these conditions.

“While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard,” she wrote in a Nov. 9 letter to several advocates, which was provided by the DOL to NC Health News.

“The hazard of contracting COVID-19 exists literally everywhere, including grocery stores, restaurants, churches, schools, or a neighbor’s home, as Governor Cooper noted recently that small group gatherings may be spreading the virus,” she added. “Because the virus is so pervasive, it may be very difficult if not impossible to prove that the illness is work-related.”

But Johnson, the  Duke professor, said there’s more the state labor agency could do.

“As is true with federal OSHA, North Carolina’s OSHA has the power to issue a temporary COVID-specific regulatory standard that employers would be required to follow,” he said, “but it’s decided not to.”

Workers’ rights advocates have petitioned the N.C. labor department to do exactly that. But Berry declined their request on Nov. 9.

“A State agency cannot responsibly adopt a rule about a disease about which the medical community knows so little, especially regarding its transmission, how it affects different populations, and the long-term effects,” she wrote. “It would be irresponsible for a state agency to adopt rules relating to [a] pandemic that remains a moving target.”

Berry added that she believes working alongside other state agencies such as DHHS to issue recommendations to businesses, instead of “aggressive regulatory actions specific to COVID-19,” will “benefit a greater number of employees across the state.”

Gov. Cooper also withdrew a draft executive order that would have mandated stricter social distancing measures and proactive COVID-19 screening for workers at meatpacking and agricultural workplaces after pushback from Berry and state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services officials.

Poultry production companies and their founders have been among the top donors to Berry’s election campaigns. Over the course of her political career, from 2000 through 2016, poultry industry players have donated generously to Berry, who did not run for reelection in 2020 and will leave office in January 2021. 

Among those players are Ronald M. Cameron, owner of Mountaire Farms, a large chicken company, who donated $10,500 in 2016; and William H. Prestage, founder of turkey and pork producer Prestage Farms, who has donated a cumulative $10,250 over several campaigns.

Dennis Beasley of Dennis Beasley Turkey Farms gave $5,250 between 2000, 2004, and 2008; and Edgar Marvin Johnson, founder of House of Raeford Farms, a chicken production company, donated a cumulative $6,500 before his death in 2016.

The North Carolina Poultry Federation has donated $2,250 to Berry.

Despite rising fear, Jessica has pressed on as the Thanksgiving holiday draws near. There’s work to do.

“I make sure that the turkey’s good to go, make sure it’s sanitized,” she said. “But it’s hard when you’re not socially distant.”

This article originally appeared at North Carolina Health News, an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. 

Juan Diego Mazuera contributed to this reporting, providing Spanish-English interpretation.

This article included sources who North Carolina Health News chose to grant a degree of anonymity. Jessica, identified in print only by her first name, provided her full name to the reporter. NC Health News also spoke to employees at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry who knew this individual in her capacity as a migrant worker to further corroborate her identity.

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