Meat Plant Workers Aren’t Safe

Even as the state cautiously moves to reopen some “non-essential” businesses, on condition they abide by social distancing restrictions, severe problems continue to grow in North Carolina’s extensive meat processing industry.

The number of these plants’ workers and their family members infected with the coronavirus continues to climb, and new reports tell the stories of workers afraid to return to their jobs. Joe Killian, writing for NC Policy Watch, recounts the words of workers at facilities like the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Bladen County.

“Ella Ellerbee isn’t going into her job at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Bladen County this week. She needs the money — but it’s not worth her health,” writes Killian. “The plant is the largest pork processing operation in the world, employing 4,500 people and processing 3,200 pigs a day. It’s also a hotbed of COVID-19 cases, with nearly 80 workers across several counties having tested positive since last month.”  

“We don’t feel safe,” Ellerbee said at a video press conference Friday. “I don’t even feel safe. I pray every day the Lord takes me out of there.” 

“With more than 800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at North Carolina meat and poultry processing plants and outbreaks in at least 19 plants, it is urgent that North Carolina’s leaders act swiftly to protect the thousands of workers at these plants who call North Carolina home. We are writing to express our grave concerns about COVID-19 related to working conditions in NC’s poultry and meat processing plants,” said the Farmworker Advocacy Network in a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper (PDF).  

In his column for the Winston-Salem Journal, Scott Sexton focuses on a Wilkes County Tyson poultry plant worker’s narrative. “[L]ike other industrial meat-packing facilities across the nation, Tyson has a problem. COVID-19 is running wild inside the complex,” writes Sexton. 

“So here’s the dilemma for James [not the worker’s real name, for his protection] and nearly 1,000 of his co-workers: Clock in, feed the family and risk infection, sickness and death or stay home, remain safe but lose his paycheck and any shot at unemployment benefits,” Sexton continues.  

“The situation has gotten so much worse,” James said. “It’s infested now…. We’re between a rock and hard place. You either go to work or you don’t have any money. You can’t get unemployment because you’re not laid off.”

All these plants are among those directed by the Trump Administration’s executive order designating meat processing plants as essential businesses that must remain open for the country’s food supply chain. The Trump order helped insulate the industry from both public and union pressure to create safer working conditions.  

For decades, environmental and labor advocates have fought for greater social responsibility from a factory farm industry grown too large and politically powerful to consider itself bound by community standards or the law. Reliant on the low financial costs of crowded working conditions, strained sanitation, and a workforce composed mostly of low-income, minority, rural residents with few job alternatives, these plants are hothouses for transmitting a new, highly contagious, viral pandemic.

As with these plants’ extreme impacts on the air and water quality of their neighbors, their role in the rapid transmission of a deadly disease shines a spotlight on the urgent need for real regulatory reform. By “real” reform, we mean implementing rules that protect neighbors’ and workers’ health — not the polluters’ profits.

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