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By Victoria Bouloubasis and Greg Barnes
On a rapidly moving production line at Mountaire Farms in Siler City, Ana uses a sharp knife to slice the wings off a chicken in less than two seconds, making sure they land into a bin without any mess.
In the swift motion she makes to lift and extend her arm to make a cut, Ana must avoid bumping elbows with the worker beside her. Her body stays clenched for hours as she repeats this task 32 to 36 times a minute, thousands of times a day.
Ana, who asked that her real name not be used, worries about the news: coronavirus outbreaks at jobs like hers are skyrocketing, and workers are dying, such as Adelfo Ruiz, 65, a worker at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Lee County.
But Ana and thousands of others who work at meat and poultry plants scattered throughout North Carolina say they have little choice but to keep working. They have families to feed, households to maintain and other obligations to meet — all on a low-wage income.
The federal government has also declared them essential workers, a vital cog in the nation’s food supply chain. Without the workers, there would be no meat or poultry on grocery store shelves. Mountaire Farms is the sixth-largest poultry processing company in the United States, processing about 400 million chickens a year, according to a spokesperson.
But their work comes at a heavy cost. The meatpacking plants have become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, spreading rapidly among the nearly 1,800 workers in Siler City and into the surrounding communities.
On May 20, Tyson Foods announced that 570 workers at its poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro had tested positive for COVID-19 — more than a quarter of the plant’s workforce. Most of the workers who tested positive had shown no symptoms, according to a company statement.
The virus has swept through Mountaire, Tyson and 27 other meatpacking and poultry processing plants in North Carolina. That’s more plants than in any other state in the country, according to a report published May 19 by the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
North Carolina ranks third in the nation for the highest number of meatpacking workers who have contracted COVID-19. As of May 27, 2,146 cases had been confirmed in 28 outbreaks at meat-processing plants in 18 counties: Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Chatham, Davie, Duplin, Hoke, Lee, Lenoir, Randolph, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Surry, Union, Wayne, Wilkes and Wilson.
Many, if not most, of those infected meatpacking workers are Latino immigrants who for decades have been drawn to North Carolina to do the grueling work that few others are willing to do.
And perhaps nowhere in the state has the virus struck harder or had the most debilitating impact as it has in Siler City, where Latinos comprise nearly 43 percent of the population.
In a single ZIP code that includes Siler City and Mountaire Farms, 414 of the 18,798 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, state figures show. That’s the highest per capita rate of any ZIP code in North Carolina.
Mountaire and the state Department of Health and Human Services won’t say how many workers at the Mountaire plant have contracted the virus. Despite repeated requests, DHHS refuses to identify the processing plants that are experiencing outbreaks or how many workers at those plants have COVID-19.
But a look at UNC Hospitals may provide a clue.
As the pandemic neared an early peak for hospitalizations, UNC spokesman Alan Wolf said in an email, a third of all COVID-19 patients at the sprawling UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill were transported there from Chatham Hospital in Siler City.
An internal UNC Hospitals report provided anonymously to NC Health News shows that by mid-May, 41 percent of all patients treated for COVID-19 at UNC Health were Latino.
According to the U.S. Census, Latinos make up about 9 percent of the state’s population.
Slow to respond, share info
Mountaire and other processing plants in North Carolina have now taken some measures to keep their workers safe. All employees wear the same uniform, which now includes a protective face shield. They have installed plexiglass barriers between production line workers, added hand-sanitation stations, extended sick leave, and taken other precautions. But the plants have also been criticized for moving too slowly to try to protect workers and for not being transparent.
In mid-April, Mountaire posted a bilingual notice at the plant saying three workers had tested positive for COVID-19, according to workers.
But the company had known four to six weeks earlier about those sick workers and didn’t notify anyone, said Ilana Dubester, founder of the nonprofit El Vinculo Hispano, or The Hispanic Liaison. A spokesperson for Mountaire said the company began “taking steps” in early March to begin safety and precautionary measures.
On April 23, shortly after the notice was posted, the National Guard and Piedmont Health tested Mountaire employees and their family members for the virus at a drive-thru clinic set up in the plant’s parking lot. Of the 356 people tested, 74 were confirmed to have the virus, said Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health.
In other words, 21 percent of the total tested had COVID-19.
Ana says she was among the few hundred tested that day, at a company with almost 1,800 employees. Mountaire declined to elaborate on how many of that number are contract workers.
Her results were negative; she continued working. Ana said no other details have been provided to her or any other Latino workers since the notice was posted.
By the end of April, Ana said, she exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. At that point, she had heard through the grapevine of several more workers who subsequently had tested positive.
This worried Ana: she lives with her husband, who is currently out of work, and her elementary school-aged child. If anyone were to bring the virus home, it would be Ana. But the family also relies on her paycheck to cover their monthly expenses, which total roughly $1,200.
The lack of oversight and transparency at the company leaves workers like Ana confused about safety protocols and their ability to take paid leave if they get sick. Ana was not hired directly by Mountaire Farms, but instead by the independent contracting company NIPCAM.
When a doctor advised her to stay home for two weeks, Ana said, the company promised to pay her for a full 40-hour workweek. She said she was paid for only 16 hours.
Ana said her symptoms had subsided by the time she returned to work, but she noticed that many more of her coworkers were not showing up.
Eventually, Ana claimed, the production lines were cut by half. Normally, the de-boning floor consists of eight lines with 17 people working each one. It is now down to four lines, she said, yet the same amount of chicken is being processed with fewer workers. The purported claims that the meat supply is dwindling due to the pandemic is news to Ana, who said she is doing double the work to keep the product moving.
When asked if any production lines have been cut at the Siler City factory, a Mountaire Farms spokesperson said, “We have had to make several changes to how we operate as a result of staffing issues, but overall our plants have been operating.”
“The chickens are very fat and there are so many now,” Ana said. “Imagine doing this over and over, all day. And if you miss one (chicken) a supervisor will angrily come over to you.”
‘What we pay you for’
Ana said she has witnessed a few workers get yelled at for asking to take a break. Last week, she recalled one man who told a supervisor his hands were hurting and his joints felt stuck.
The supervisor forced him to continue and said “this is what we pay you for,” Ana said. “That makes me really angry. But I can’t do anything for them. I sometimes want to defend my people, but then I’ll get myself into trouble.”
Ana suspects that the majority of the workers still on the production floor are fellow contract employees, those without company benefits or health insurance. According to Alvaro Villaveces, who owns NIPCAM, his company contracts 300 employees to Mountaire Farms.
“A bunch of people are not going to work, but that’s a hard call because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” Dubester said. “Some temporary [contract] workers basically have been told that [they are] dispensable.”
An extra dollar
For Maricela Martinez, that’s exactly what happened.
In early April she was contracted by NIPCAM for a three-month gig at Mountaire to work with five other new housekeepers hired to clean during the pandemic. After her husband suffered a recent back injury that kept him out of work, Martinez welcomed a job that was less physically strenuous than the construction demolition work she did before. Martinez hoped to work at the plant beyond the three-month contract, maintaining their single-income household at $11.70 per hour.
During the first month of work Martinez was given a dollar raise for “doing a good job,” along with 10 pounds of chicken at no cost. She wants to go back to her job because she needs it. But she says contract workers aren’t given the same benefits as workers directly employed by Mountaire.
In an email, a Mountaire spokesperson said all workers are paid between $12 and $14 an hour. But, according to a check paid to Martinez through NIPCAM, the contracting company, she makes $11.70 per hour. Ana said her hourly wage is $11.40, which is in line with what Dubester hears from workers, too.
According to Villaveces, the NIPCAM owner, Mountaire sets the pay rate and NIPCAM charges Mountaire a percentage above. He said Mountaire sets the hourly rate lower for contract workers to “give them an incentive to come to work for them directly. They don’t want to have contractors.”
“It’s in our best interest to make sure that all of these people are protected and healthy to work. If not, this whole thing breaks down,” he maintained. “We spend a lot of time making sure workers are happy because they are a very scarce commodity. The idea that we can mistreat these people does not exist.”
“You can’t have two sets of rules inside the processing plant. The workers need to feel like they are part of the team. If they are not part of that, it becomes complete chaos,” he said. “Worker morale is very important to us.”
Both Ana and Martinez, however, say contract workers are generally confused about their benefits, which are not clearly communicated to them by NIPCAM or Mountaire.
Villaveces, who does not live in North Carolina, says that the people who work with him on the ground in Siler City communicate directly with poultry plant employees and that the employees will be paid for every day they miss if they prove they test positive for the coronavirus.
That wasn’t Martinez’s experience.
On April 23, after a temperature check at work, Martinez was sent home for five days. She says she was among 15 workers who had an above-normal temperature. She didn’t exhibit any other symptoms, but her husband did two days later.
They went to the hospital on April 25 and he tested positive for COVID-19. Martinez was asked to come back to work but explained to the subcontractor that the doctor (who hadn’t tested her) recommended she stay home a total of two weeks since her husband tested positive. For this, Martinez said, she was fired.
Despite the risk of speaking out, Martinez has used her real name, here and in other news stories.
“I want to talk because everything I am saying is true,” she said.
Martinez wants to work a job that gives everyone paid time off — especially during a pandemic.
“Deep down, we (contract workers) knew we weren’t going to be given anything,” she said.