RALEIGH (May 8, 2020) – Workers, advocates, and policy experts called on state officials this morning to contain the spread of COVID-19 in poultry and meat processing facilities and take some simple but urgent measures to keep them, their families, and their broader communities safe.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise in essential industries throughout the state such as meat and poultry processing, putting millions of workers – especially workers of color – at risk. Forced to work shoulder-to-shoulder without access to adequate, or in some cases, any protective gear, workers across dozens of essential worksites are contracting and dying from COVID-19.
Sofia and Gregoria, who both worked at Case Farms in Morganton, described being given a single, thin mask to use for months at a time. “We have to pay for food, we have to pay for rent, and so we can’t miss work,” Sofia said.
Gregoria ended up leaving the plant in early April. “I left because I was really fearful, panicked knowing there were people that were infected and the plant didn’t want to say anything. They have families, they have children,” she said. “Where is the social distancing for the workers? Where is the safety and security?”
Most workers do not have paid sick time or adequate healthcare, most do not have health insurance, and after years earning low wages, they have little reserves to enable them to leave steady employment.
“Meatpacking and poultry workers are at the frontlines of this pandemic – these workers are putting their lives on the line every day,” said Andre Barnett with UFCW 1208, the nation’s largest food processing union, which represents workers at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel. “More than ever, companies must be held accountable. It’s not about politics but about the safety of workers.”
“Safety has to come first at the workplace. Since COVID-19, we don’t feel safe,” said Ella Ellerbe, a worker at Smithfield. “Keep me out of there until they guarantee they’re going to test people, keep us 6 feet apart, give us PPE, and protect us.”
There have been more than 800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at plants across the state. In the past few weeks, there have been outbreaks at both poultry and pork processing plants, such as Smithfield, where workers in Tar Heel and Clinton have reported unsanitary conditions and a rising number of COVID-19 cases, yet they have no paid sick days.
“This is an industry whose profits are billions of dollars,” said Hunter Ogletree with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, regarding the poultry and meat industry. “We are not asking them to stop providing food for our country, we are asking them to take simple but urgent measures. This is not a binary choice. They have the ability to both provide production and food for our country and protect their workers.”
Meanwhile, those who are being forced to miss work need financial support and are being left out of recent federal bills. Instead of responding to the crisis in meat and poultry processing by requiring essential industries to adopt these guidelines as mandatory, the Trump administration used the National Defense Production Act to make it easier for meat and poultry processors to avoid protecting their workers from the coronavirus, even if conditions are unsafe and unsanitary and contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
“As part of America’s industrial food chain, these companies will do everything they can to keep the lines running, no matter the cost to workers,” said Angela Stuesse, an Associate Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “As long as this industry is permitted, they’ll put profit over people. Many knew about outbreaks for weeks before telling their employees. This industry will not regulate itself.”
In a new letter, advocacy groups are asking leaders to take steps to protect those who have been working throughout the pandemic, and enact rules requiring meatpacking and other essential employers to follow guidance on workplace safety and protect their employees from COVID-19.
“North Carolina’s leaders, as well as the poultry and meat processing industry, have a moral obligation during this time of crisis not only to its workers but also to the public health of all communities in NC,” the letter reads.
If state officials fail to adopt these measures, efforts to re-open the economy will trigger a second and likely third wave of infections before the year is done — just another reminder that the economy is made up of people, and sick people can’t help employers stay afloat.
“We can’t risk workers’ lives for burgers, bacon, and blue jeans,” said MaryBe McMillan, President of the NC State AFL-CIO. “If we want to stop future waves, our Department of Labor and other elected officials must step up and protect the health of workers and our communities.”
A recording of this morning’s press event is available upon request. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.