By Greg Barnes and Victoria Bouloubasis
Maricela Martinez still remembers getting her first paycheck from a chicken processing plant in Siler City — $280 for a week’s worth of work back in 1999.
“It made me cry,” Martinez said. “This was my first job at a company and allowed me to earn my own money and support my sons.”
Martinez arrived in Siler City 21 years ago, joining an influx of Latino immigrants who continue to be drawn to this small Chatham County town on the promise of steady employment, decent wages and more economic stability than they had back home.
But now, as the coronavirus continues to race through North Carolina’s meat and poultry processing plants, workers at Siler City’s Mountaire Farms and other facilities across the state are facing the grim decision of whether cutting up chicken is worth risking their lives.
Despite a multitude of recent safety precautions, the plants remain breeding grounds for the virus, largely because hundreds of workers stand closely together on production lines and eat together in cafeterias.
Neither Mountaire nor state health officials will say how many of Mountaire’s nearly 1,800 workers in Siler City have contracted the coronavirus, but the ZIP code that includes the plant and the city suggests that it is a sizable number.
Only one of the more than 1,000 ZIP codes in the state has more confirmed cases than the 27433 ZIP code that encompasses Siler City in Chatham County. There, as of Wednesday, 414 people had tested positive.
Reasons abound for such a high number. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected Latinos and African Americans, partly because of poverty, crowded living quarters, employment in service-related jobs, underlying health conditions and a reluctance to interact with the health care system.
Latinos comprise 35 percent of the state’s 24,140 confirmed cases of the coronavirus but make up only 9.6 percent of the state’s population.
U.S. Census figures show that 30 percent of the 18,798 people living in the Siler City ZIP code are Latino, but that percentage is believed to be low because many undocumented immigrants go uncounted.
As a group, the statistics show, people living in the ZIP code have a lower income, have fewer years of education and are more likely to live in a small home with many other family members. The figures show that 30 percent of children in the ZIP code live in poverty, 1.3 times the state’s rate.
Nonprofits can only do so much
All of those factors have turned the ZIP code into one of the top coronavirus hotspots in North Carolina. And because of that, advocates say, a large segment of its Latino community is struggling to meet even the most basic needs.
Nonprofit organizations are trying to help as best they can. Funds and networks have been set up to assist, but they can only do so much.
With the support of five other nonprofit groups, El Vinculo Hispano — also known as The Hispanic Liaison — established the Chatham Solidarity Fund, largely to help Latinos who didn’t qualify for a federal stimulus check because of their immigration status.
The initial goal was to raise $360,000. Organizers don’t expect to reach that level, but they have raised nearly $160,000, which will go a long way toward helping people pay their bills and put food on the table.
“It’s a one-time infusion to help alleviate some financial stress,” said Ilana Dubester, founder and director of The Hispanic Liaison. “It is not going to be a long-term solution, but for many, I’m sure, it will be a big relief. They might be able to pay two months of rent. They might be able to buy food or whatever else they need.”
Marcella Slade, who coordinates a new Neighbor2Neighbor program through the Chatham County nonprofit chapter of Abundance NC and the Chatham News + Record, said most of the people contacting her want help with rent or utility payments.
But that’s far from all, Slade said.
They ask for “water, milk, toilet paper, potatoes, beans,” she said. “The people that are poor are the ones suffering the most. It’s definitely pulled out that social difference.”
Adults aren’t the only ones suffering. The problems experienced by parents are being passed down to their children.
Selina Lopez, who manages a Latino youth group at The Hispanic Liaison, said many of the teenagers she works with have parents who work at Mountaire Farms.
“It’s not just a corporation issue. It very much affects the family as a whole,” Lopez said. “My youth are having increased anxiety and stress. They’re really scared for their parents’ health and, being removed from the daily routine of adult mentors like teachers, they are having increased feelings of isolation. They really fear for their parents’ safety and feel their families are not being supported. It’s taking a huge toll on them.”
“Welcome to Work”
Through economic lulls and booms, the textile and poultry industries have long anchored their factories in Siler City. In a 1964 campaign touting new factory jobs coming to town, a narrator excitedly proclaims: “Siler City can say confidently to its young people and future citizens: ‘Welcome to Work.’” The last three words are emblazoned on screen, beckoning generations of new workers to the rural South.
The “polleras,” or poultry plants, are a looming presence in Siler City’s working-class communities, historically employing African Americans and, as the term was coined then, “ethnic whites” of European descent.
In the 1980s, recruiters sought cheaper labor and called on immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the U.S.-Mexico border to work.
The Townsend chicken plant stood where Mountaire Farms is now. Gold Kist, another former poultry plant, was located closer to downtown, near Dubester’s office. It was later bought by Pilgrim’s Pride.
Latino newcomers entered an already racially segregated labor market and were met with community tension from Siler City natives, both black and white, especially as the Latino population grew.
In 1990, the town’s population totaled 4,995. Of those, 3 percent were Hispanic (as classified by the Census). By 2000, the Latino population jumped to 40 percent. That same year, a few prominent locals invited former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke to host a rally in town. His words specifically targeted the Spanish-speaking population. Records from that time note that many Latino residents thought it was an event sponsored by local officials since it was held on the steps of Town Hall.
In 2010, as the town fumbled to recover from the 2008 economic recession, Siler City’s total population dropped by 1,000, to less than 4,000 people. Yet Latinos made up 49.8 percent of Siler City’s population in 2010, making them the majority group in town, with established families, several church congregations (both Catholic and Pentecostal), celebrated youth soccer teams, and flourishing, visible businesses in historic downtown storefronts and modern strip malls.
When Townsend closed, many Latinos found work at chicken plants in neighboring counties or found other jobs. But they maintained their homes in Siler City.
Today, Latinos still make up almost 43 percent of the total population according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
Emilio Vicente, a community organizer, has lived in Siler City since he was old enough to start elementary school in the 1990s. His family came from Guatemala and spoke K’iche’, an indigenous Mayan language; his mother was the only adult who spoke enough Spanish to acclimate them to the area. She worked at the poultry plants, too. So did Vicente’s father and uncles.
He says he was too young to remember the David Duke rally, save for rumblings he may have overheard from the adults in the community.
“I wasn’t old enough to process what it meant,” Vicente said.
But in college he began putting together the pieces of his adopted hometown’s history; one he was shielded from as an immigrant child.
“When I did learn about it, I wasn’t surprised that it had happened or that there were people in the community who invited David Duke to come to Siler City. Even now, that tension is still there.”
Latino families who scratch out a living working in poultry plants are also at their mercy. In November 2017, when Mountaire Farms took over the shuttered Townsend property, the company also purchased Johnson’s Mobile Home Park, adjacent to the plant.
By May of 2018 Mountaire sent eviction notices to the 28 families on that property; many owned their mobile homes. Dubester’s nonprofit organization — The Hispanic Liaison — stepped in and after months of negotiations with Chatham County officials and the company, a settlement of $10,190 per family was reached.
“That was such a particularly unique opportunity,” Dubester said. “And thanks to (the families’) courage to stick their necks out we were able to do what we did.”
Today, Mountaire Farms workers are turning to The Hispanic Liaison for support, as well as to Vicente, who helped the nonprofit organize those same families in Johnson Mobile Home Park. But public pressure proves more difficult than ever amid workers fearing for their health and, at the same time, potential retaliation from their employer if they ask for better protections and pay.
“There have been sadly so few workers willing to come forward,” Dubester said. “Organizing is challenging in normal times, even in a place like Siler City where the community is close-knit. A lot more people are afraid of sticking their necks out.”
Outbreaks across the state
The outbreak surrounding the Mountaire processing plant isn’t an isolated incident. Although the state Department of Health and Human Services won’t divulge the number of workers infected with the coronavirus at individual plants, it does report the number of cases at the plants statewide.
As of Wednesday, state officials reported 2,146 cases in 28 processing plants in 18 counties. That represents nearly 10 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in North Carolina.
In the 28328 zip code that includes a Smithfield Foods plant in Clinton, 254 people have contracted COVID-19. In the 28365 zip code that includes a Butterball plant in Mt. Olive, 204 people have tested positive. Butterball is in Duplin County, which has the highest ratio of cases per capita of anywhere in the state — 120 out of 10,000.
Cases aren’t extremely high in other ZIP codes that contain processing plants, but they are still higher than most. In the Wilkesboro ZIPcode, which includes a Tyson Foods plant, 126 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Tyson earlier this month tested almost all of its more than 2,000 plant workers and found that 570 had the virus.
That suggests many workers live in nearby communities, potentially spreading the virus to those areas. During a news conference last week, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said the growing number of cases in neighboring Forsyth County is due partly to the Tyson plant. The high number of infected workers caused Tyson to temporarily shut down so the plant could be thoroughly disinfected.
The working class
But it isn’t just workers of processing plants that are getting sick, said Brian Toomey, the chief executive of Piedmont Health, which provides health clinics in Siler City and throughout the state.
It’s the working poor, Toomey said.
In April, Piedmont Health partnered with state officials and the National Guard to test 356 Mountaire workers and their family members for the virus over two days in mid-April. Of those, 74 tested positive — or 21 percent.
But Toomey said test results over a much longer period at four Piedmont health clinics — in Siler City, Moncure, Carrboro and Burlington — found a higher percentage of infected people in the general population — 32 percent of the nearly 1,200 tested.
“It’s the working poor community who live in congregate housing, and in that section (of Siler City) it’s a lot of Latinos,” Toomey said. “It has hit that group hard, and most of it in this situation was because one person gets sick and shared a living environment. There’s no space for you to go into your own private room to quarantine from everybody else. So that’s one of the ways it’s affected this population of working class in a very different way.”
Toomey told a story of three farmers who went to a Piedmont Health clinic to get tested for the coronavirus. The tests confirmed that all three farmers had the virus. Health officials then went to test the farmworkers at one of the farmer’s properties, in Lee County. Nineteen of those workers tested positive, he said.
Toomey told another story, about a father who took his 11-day-old baby into a clinic. The baby tested positive for the virus. The mother never exhibited any symptoms, Toomey said.
Those types of stories have become common in and around Siler City.
Slade, the advocate for the Neighbor2Neighbor program, said a man suffering from the coronavirus learned that his sister had died about two hours earlier from the coronavirus. Slade said she suggested that the man go outside, look at the stars and think about his sister.
The man declined the advice, she said. He was under quarantine and was told that he could not leave his home.
His sister lives about two hours away, and he won’t be able to attend her funeral.
“His sister died and he can’t go see her,” Slade said. “Sad stuff.”
‘Good corporate citizen’
For nearly 20 years, Mountaire Farms and its workers at a plant in the Robeson County town of Lumber Bridge have doled out thousands of free meals at Thanksgiving to the less fortunate. That tradition has carried over to the year-old Siler City plant.
It’s just one of myriad ways that the company has been a good corporate citizen, said Vickie Newell, director of Chatham Literacy, one of the nonprofits that has helped to organize the Chatham Solidarity Fund.
Newell said Mountaire, Siler City’s largest private employer, has helped Habitat for Humanity build houses in the county. The company has worked with the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Salvation Army, she said.
“The biggest way I think that probably their workers or the community benefit from them is through nonprofits,” Newell said. “I mean they support plenty of nonprofits through sponsorship. I don’t know if they give direct grants to people but I know they’re always sponsoring, and by that I mean giving money so that nonprofits can go out and do the work that we do in the community, to make it better.”
Dubester sees irony in that. Ron Cameron, Mountaire’s CEO, was President Donald Trump’s fifth-largest contributor in the 2016 presidential election, donating $2 million. Dubester said Mountaire has never donated to The Hispanic Liaison.
She is also irked by the refusal of Mountaire and state health officials to reveal how many plant workers have contracted the coronavirus.
State officials say it’s a matter of protecting employees’ privacy rights and retaining cooperation from the private industries.
“It affects our community response and our community education efforts. It makes it more dangerous and more risky for people still working there,” Dubester said. “It’s unconscionable that (DHHS is) not sharing. They need to stop protecting employers.”
Dubester said racial tension has always been just under the surface in Siler City. But when Trump got elected, she said, the tensions heightened. Trump’s policies on immigration haven’t helped, she said.
“Everybody’s experiencing microaggressions and overt statements and overt aggressions, not physical, thank goodness, that I know of,” Dubester said. “I experienced that and other people have in my community.”
As the coronavirus tightens its grip on the Mountaire plant, tensions are also mounting between the company and its workers.
Vicente, the community organizer, and a group of community members, including workers and many first-generation immigrants whose parents work at Mountaire Farms, started an online petition with a list of demands from workers.
The petition has been signed nearly 3,500 times, and a company representative is emailed every time a signature is added. The group set up a hotline last week so that workers can speak to Vicente and other community organizers whom they trust about their concerns around safety and their rights on the job, especially the contract workers.
“People are afraid in general,” Vicente said. “The people contracting them are abusing them by not giving them their promised vacation time, not paying them the same amount that Mountaire Farms is paying the workers.”
Vicente hopes that with testimonies collected via the hotline, they can better understand the issues at Mountaire. He wants to use the information to make clear demands so the company will better serve its workers, especially during the pandemic.
“Mountaire should offer paid leave to every single worker with the promise that they will pay them for the duration of a period that is safe for workers to stay home,” Vicente said, “and not have them make the decision of either coming to work or losing their jobs.”
The tension between workers and employers isn’t isolated to Mountaire. Similar rifts are occuring at Smithfield Foods, at Tyson Foods, at Butterball and at other meat and poultry processing companies across the country.
Many of those plants have already experienced temporary shutdowns caused by the coronavirus. Like Mountaire, many have also experienced a significant decrease in production as workers get sick or just decide it’s better to stay home. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, 11,000 workers at just three companies — Smithfield, Tyson and JBS – have been stricken by the virus.
Meanwhile the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has confirmed to the News & Observer that farmers around the state have started euthanizing more than 1.5 million chickens as capacity at processing plants has slowed.
A report last week from CoBank, a cooperative serving rural America, found that the national supply of meat could soon shrink by 35 percent and prices could spike by 20 percent.
On May 8, the NC Justice Center, the state AFL-CIO and the Western North Carolina Workers Center held a news conference demanding that state officials do everything in their power to better protect workers at meat and poultry processing plants.“The way we protect our food supply is to protect our meatpacking workers, but unfortunately there seems to be more concern about satisfying our hunger for meat than taking care
of our workers,” said MaryBe MacMillan, president of the state AFL-CIO. “We cannot risk workers’ lives for burgers, bacon or blue jeans.”