Valley Poultry Workers Worry About Lack of Protection At Work

Apr 23, 2020

Workers in a poultry plant.
Credit Earl Dotter of Oxfam America

The Shenandoah Valley’s poultry processing plants have continued to operate through the pandemic.  They are considered essential businesses under the governor's closure order.  But line workers at those plants have expressed fears that new safety measures implemented recently are not enough. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

Harrisonburg Vice Mayor Sal Romero says he has heard from hundreds of poultry plant workers over the past few weeks since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Their concerns include a lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and the ongoing working conditions that make physical distancing difficult.

SAL ROMERO: For the most part, people are concerned that they’re very close to each other, in close proximity, the fact that they aren’t being notified when someone is infected, and not getting flexible leave.

Romero said some companies have taken proactive steps to protect workers, but also said that the effort seems to be inconsistent across the area’s plants.

ROMERO: Things have evolved over the last month for better in some plants, but not as much in others.

Hobey Bauhaun is the president of the Virginia Poultry Federation headquartered in Harrisonburg, representing the operators of the plants. He said he's communicated with the federation’s member companies about their safety measures. Some of those measures include health and temperature screenings of employees, barriers and tents to encourage social distancing during breaks, and sending home anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 or who has been exposed to a positive case.  He said there is an entire shift dedicated to sanitizing common areas.

The close-quarters nature of poultry processing, however, still makes physical distancing challenging while on-shift.  Line-workers are shoulder-to-shoulder.

HOBEY BAUHAUN: In poultry processing, in a lot of manufacturing, it is challenging to achieve that six-foot barrier, and plants have established partitions and use of PPE to mitigate risks along those lines.     

The question remains if those measures are enough.  And advocates for workers don't know which plants are taking the necessary steps to protect them. Romero has kept in close contact with the local poultry processing plants but said accountability is a challenge, because the concerns he has heard from workers in the community are somewhat random.

ROMERO: That’s the problem, it’s anecdotal. I think one of my concerns is that sure, you know some of the plants are doing a better job, but there’s the accountability measure. It’s really a matter of perspective, I think. But I keep hearing from employees who are concerned they’re not doing enough.

He has also been in contact with legislators and health officials, as well as Bauhaun, to communicate concerns from the plants' workers.

Romero also emphasized the need for guidance from lawmakers in Richmond.  Poultry processing is one of many essential businesses in the Valley that present challenges to physical distancing. To that end, though, he said local governments are limited in their authority to hold those plants accountable.

ROMERO: The local government is unable, to a great extent, to monitor and implement that those things are being followed. We need greater guidance to those sorts of businesses, and the poultry plants are a great example.

Poultry plants are included under food and agriculture as one of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors to continue operating during the pandemic. Bauhaun said the crisis has disrupted the industry as supply chains have shifted from restaurants to grocery stores.

BAUHAUN: The industry is also facing some tough economic challenges with the decline of the food service sector. We’re really just doing all we can to produce the food we need while doing all we can to protect our people.

Outbreaks of the coronavirus have also forced food processing plants across the country – including those that process poultry - to suspend their operations, or in some cases, close entirely.  The Wayne Farms company has had to shut down 11 of its chicken processing facilities across the south due to COVID-19.  According to Dr. Laura Kornegay, Director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, if an employee tests positive, it is their decision to share their identity with their employer, but the employer is notified of an exposure nonetheless.

Romero has also urged the Virginia Department of Health to focus on neighborhoods and areas outside of the poultry plants as potential spots for an outbreak.

ROMERO: Is it neighborhood based, is it a specific sector of the community? What are we doing to address it?

Advocates have been reaching out to Latino communities, whose members make up a large proportion of workers. That outreach has included Spanish-language updates from Romero through his Facebook page, as well as general information about COVID-19.

Sylvia Beitzel volunteers with New Bridges Immigrant Resource center to translate Governor Ralph Northam’s press briefings and highlight other important facts regarding rights during the pandemic that otherwise would not be accessible for most of the poultry workers.

SYLVIA BEITZEL: The few hours they do have to think about their own personal lives, I feel that there’s a lack of information.

For the meantime, Romero has encouraged poultry workers and others in the community to call the human resources departments at the local poultry plants to voice their concerns.