Four years ago, Reyna Bahena Alvarez moved from Mexico to Georgetown in the US state of Delaware to be with her husband Aaron.
He worked at the local Perdue Farms chicken plant at night and she got a job there working the day shift. When the US began shutting down because of the spread of the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, she was working on the line.
Reyna and Aaron were both infected with COVID-19.
“I think we got sick at the plant because a week before everything, a coworker passed away, and we all said, ‘Hey, what happened? He died,’ but we didn’t know of what. And yet, in the plant, they started saying ‘now we’ll clean here, we’ll clean there, you have to wash your hands every time you go in and out, put on hand sanitiser,’” explained Alvarez in Spanish. “They were starting to get worried, but they didn’t tell us what was really going on.”
Poultry plants became hotspots for the spread of the virus. The working conditions inside are notoriously cramped and the virus spread easily among workers. While Reyna was able to recover from the virus, her husband Aaron was not.
She was allowed to visit him at the hospital one last time when he was removed from a ventilator.
“They had taken out the tube and his mouth had stayed open. I closed his mouth and I continued praying but, little by little he started getting cold, very cold,” remembered Reyna.
Aaron was 67 years old on May 7 when he drew his final breath. He is one of hundreds of essential workers at US meatpacking plants to die from COVID-19.
The US is the world’s largest producer of chickens. In 2019, it produced more than nine billion chickens, which sold for almost $100bn.
Poultry is a dangerous industry for workers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meatpacking workers have among the highest rates of workplace injury and illness in the country.
A lot of industry watchers were unsurprised that the coronavirus spread so easily in US poultry plants.
“There was a complete meltdown, the companies were not prepared for it,” explained Tony Corbo with Food & Water Watch, a non-profit that focuses on food and corporate accountability. “In many of these plants, the workers are elbow to elbow, and they weren’t provided with personal protective equipment. This crisis has revealed how dirty this industry is.”
When plants began to close in April of 2020, the industry turned to the White House for help. John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat processors based in Arkansas, published a letter in major newspapers claiming the pandemic could break the US food supply chain. President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act, a law that gives the president emergency authority over domestic industries, to declare that meatpacking plants were essential businesses that should stay open during the pandemic.
“I think that the meat industry understood that the fear of going to the grocery store and not seeing the products that we want was so powerful that there was an opportunity to solicit federal assistance,” explained Leah Douglas with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit newsroom that focuses on food and agriculture. “The more pressing concern at the time was workers already dying from COVID-19 and that was backgrounded to some extent.”
The Food and Environment Reporting Network has tracked the outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country. According to its latest figures, more than 48,000 meatpacking workers have been infected and 239 have died from the virus.
The Delmarva Peninsula stretches for hundreds of kilometres across the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. It is one of the largest poultry-producing regions in the US. Sussex County in Southern Delaware is considered the birthplace of the modern poultry industry.
In April, Delaware Governor John Carney declared Sussex County a COVID-19 hotspot due to the skyrocketing number of cases.
“When you have people standing shoulder to shoulder on a line while 160 birds per minute are going by for you to process, there is no way that you can do this safely,” said Maria Payan, an environmental activist in southern Delaware. “Cheap meat is not an excuse to put peoples' lives in jeopardy.”
Several plants in the area display large billboards advertising jobs. Fault Lines wanted to see what the plants were telling new recruits about the dangers of COVID-19, so in July of 2020, we entered the recruitment centre for Mountaire Farms, which has headquarters in Delaware.
A recruiter told our undercover reporter that workers would not be stationed six feet apart inside the plant as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. She also underplayed the number of cases they had had at the plant, saying there had been 10 or 15 cases.
According to the union that represents workers at the plant, UFCW Local 27, at the end of March there had been 41 cases of COVID-19. It is unclear how many workers have gotten sick and died in the months following the initial outbreak.
“The shocking thing to me is how cavalier they were given the number of cases they've had,” explained David Muraskin, a lawyer with Public Justice, a legal non-profit that uses litigation to fight for social justice issues. “We know from COVID-19 that six feet of distance is essential to protecting against the spread, but they're not willing to space the workers. They are going to be exposed again and that's really heartbreaking.”
Fault Lines traveled to rural Accomack County, not far from the large poultry plants on Virginia's Eastern Shore, to attend a drive-up service at Holy Trinity Baptist Church. The pastor here, Reverend Willie Justis, has been around poultry workers his entire life; his mother was one of the first Black female supervisors at a local plant. Several members of his congregation have passed away this year from COVID-19.
“It doesn’t give people the opportunity to grieve; as a culture we are used to embracing, holding, and crying together,” explained Pastor Justis. “When you have to wear masks and social distance at a gravesite it changes the whole dynamic. I know that there are people that are literally wounded, traumatised right now because of deaths during this COVID-19 period.”
Justis has been outspoken about how the virus has disproportionately impacted workers of colour at US poultry plants. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an astonishing 87 percent of reported cases in meatpacking plants in April and May of 2020 were among racial or ethnic minorities. Poultry plants have been staffed by immigrants, refugees and workers of colour for a long time in the US, something brought into the spotlight by the deadly spread of the coronavirus.
“The poultry industry is built on a racist system,” elucidated Justis. “It’s very oppressive when you are extorting the labour of Brown and Black people for billion-dollar profits but you tell workers they can’t speak to the media to tell them you are afraid to go back to work because COVID-19 is real. That’s plantational: We can’t say it because ‘massa’ might get mad.”
While roughly 70 percent of processing workers at meatpacking plants are people of colour, the management is largely white. At JBS USA, one of the world’s largest food processors, 58 percent of management is white, at Tyson Foods, Inc. the figure is 73 percent.
“I don’t really think the poultry industry cares about racism right now,” said Pastor Justis. “However, when some of their more righteous buyers who think that racism is wrong and Black lives do matter, say we won’t buy your product until you start treating employees correctly, then maybe they will start paying attention to racism.”