Virginia Poultry Workers See Victory In New COVID-19 Protection Rules

Originally published on July 20, 2020 4:02 pm

The employees who work in the poultry plants on the Eastern Shore of Virginia are accustomed to long hours and some of the most grueling work in the country — work that has grown uniquely dangerous amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Many of these workers came to the United States from Guatemala and Mexico, and are not used to having their voices heard. That is, until this past Wednesday, when one of their demands was answered.

Virginia became the first state in the nation last week to require businesses to protect workers from the coronavirus. The state's new emergency temporary standards obligate businesses to give out personal protective equipment, mandate social distancing guidelines and put in place response plans and training for workers, among other measures. Companies risk up to $130,000 in penalties if they are found to be in violation of the guidelines.

"Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially not during a pandemic," the state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, said in a statement on Wednesday. "In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers from COVID-19, creating the nation's first enforceable workplace safety requirements."

The standards represent a rare victory for worker rights in the Trump era — in particular, for the largely Latinx poultry workers of the Eastern Shore, who helped lead a grassroots effort to push for more protections after being deemed "essential workers."

Essential workers are more likely to get COVID-19 than those who can stay at home, and the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on those who work at poultry processing plants. In May, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among about 130,000 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states, 4,913 cases and 20 deaths occurred due to "difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions."

On the Eastern Shore alone, poultry plants run by Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms have been linked to more than 260 cases of the coronavirus, Northam said last week.

For the poultry plant workers on the Eastern Shore, if they do get sick, they're likely treated at the Onley Community Health Center, a nearby clinic that is part of the Eastern Shore Rural Health system.

"We know for a fact that the poultry plants had a dramatic increase and they account for about half, if not more, than the positive tests total on the Eastern Shore," Eastern Shore Rural Health System CEO Nancy Stern said.

Advocates say that before the new safety guidelines were announced, companies had few safety precautions at all — no masks or temperature checks, no training or information on the pandemic and no way of tracking who was sick — despite the fact that poultry workers work closely together, which makes it difficult to socially distance on the line. Moreover, the workers are largely Latinx, a community that is four times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to contract COVID-19, according to the CDC.

In a statement, Tyson Foods said it has "consistently met or exceeded" guidance from both the CDC and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "on which the Virginia standard seems to be based."

Officials for Perdue said that the company has "instituted extensive incremental safety measures" at its processing facility on the Eastern Shore, including "additional sanitation, enforcement of social distancing where possible, installation of temporary partitions where social distancing isn't possible, temperature checks and mask wearing for everyone entering our buildings." Since then, they said infections have decreased.

Activists have called such protections long overdue, and are cheering Virginia's new mandates, which they say have a chance to protect workers across the state.

Jason Yarashes, who heads the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers for the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that the passing of the new standards was "incredible" because it was it not only focused on the most vulnerable communities, but was also driven by their activism.

"What happened here was those workers spoke up and against all the odds, passed the standard and now have protections not just for themselves, but for all the workers throughout the Commonwealth," Yarashes said. "So flipping that narrative."

Yarashes said much of the work was done at the hands of "coalition leaders, workers [and] labor advocates" who were trying to find a creative solution to a difficult problem. But he said that kind of community organizing is difficult to do in midst of a national pandemic, which made the success of the movement all the more exciting. He said about 50 cars full of people came out during one demonstration.

One of the people who demonstrated is a former poultry worker and community organizer who asked to be identified only as H because she is undocumented. She said she was surprised by how people came together.

"It's the first time you see people from different ethnicities join together like this," she said in Spanish. "It was hard, with the Latino community to get them involved because they don't want to draw attention to themselves because so many are undocumented."

She said she knew two people who died after getting COVID-19 from poultry plants. Although there are still plenty of open questions about the new standards, including how rigorously they'll be enforced, she said they make her hopeful nonetheless.

Through speaking out and fighting for their rights, she said, things can change for Latinx workers in this country, given that they make up such a large swath of essential workers.

"They are the people who bring the food to your house, thanks to them you can sit at your table and eat," she said. And she says we should take care of them.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have a motion to accept the agency's recommendation here.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Virginia, an historic first in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have 10 yeses, one no, one abstention and two absent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you. Motion carries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's from Wednesday, when Virginia became the first state in the nation requiring businesses to protect workers from the coronavirus. The emergency temporary standards mandate personal protective equipment, social distance, response plans and training for workers, among other measures. They will apply to every place of business in the state.

But these new rules have their roots far away from Virginia's capital, in the rural Eastern Shore and what has been happening to Latino poultry workers during this pandemic. The story of this rare victory for workers' rights in the Trump era begins in a dilapidated trailer park that sits on the side of the road next to a cornfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are chicken coops propped up next to clotheslines and open areas with scrub grass that the Latinos who live here keep hoping will be turned into a playground by the landlords who run the place. Despite promises to do that and fix the sewage and so much else, little has changed here over the years, according to the residents that I meet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This community is named Dreamland. Many of the people who live here did come for the American dream - to get a job, educate their children, make enough money to send home to their communities in Mexico and Guatemala. Still, the name can seem like a joke. Life here is about hard work - some of the most grueling in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Uh-huh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A young woman from Guatemala lives here with her 3-year-old son. She works at a poultry plant. We aren't using her name because she fears losing her job. She started as a cleaner there a few months ago, right in the midst of the pandemic. It's been scary.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The virus had been hitting poultry workers hard, she recounts, and she knew people had been getting sick at the plant. She says she was afraid, but she needed the money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she feels like she's taking a risk, and she worries about bringing the virus home and getting her toddler sick. There are more than a quarter-million poultry workers in the United States, and their work takes place in massive operations. Early on in the pandemic, the Trump administration deemed them essential so that employees were obligated to show up. And these plants are still humming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing outside the Perdue poultry processing plant here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. It is busy. Trucks are coming in and out. Out front, they have signs that proclaim they are hiring, along with others that say, safety first. But health officials in this region have linked half of all coronavirus infections here to poultry plants like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hi. Can I help you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yeah, I (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For the most part, the people who get sick seek help at a nearby community clinic about 5 miles away, where free COVID tests are performed, and everyone get screened before coming inside the building, like this man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Have you been exposed to a positive case of COVID...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: ...Coronavirus? Have you previously tested positive for COVID?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Are you a migrant farm worker, or do you live in a migrant camp?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's called Onley Community Health Center, and it's part of the Eastern Shore Rural Health System. Its CEO is Nancy Stern.

NANCY STERN: It was one of those things where there was a delayed spread here when things were starting to really happen. But when it did spread, it spread rapidly. And so we have seen over the past - not recently - a terrible surge for our very small population of 44,000 people. So here at Eastern Shore Rural Health, we've tested nearly 2,000 people since the pandemic began here, and we have found that about 25% - a little over that - have tested positive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is a lot.

STERN: It is. We know for a fact that the poultry plants had a dramatic increase and account for over - about half, if not more, than the positive test total on the Eastern Shore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The reasons are many. People on the line in poultry plants work closely together, making it hard to socially distance. And companies at the beginning had few safety precautions at all - no masks or temperature checks, no training or information on the pandemic and no way of tracking who was sick.

In May, when it became clear poultry plants were a huge source of infection in the state, the CDC was brought in to conduct tests. At the Perdue plant, almost 20% came back positive. Also, the workers, especially Latinos, live in multigenerational homes where there is no place to quarantine if you get sick. And so workers were bringing back the infections from the plant into the community.

- May I ask you, as someone who works in community health, were you surprised or unsurprised by how this pandemic has played out in the United States in terms of how it has impacted communities of color more severely, in terms of the difficulty in responding?

STERN: I'm not surprised a bit because the most vulnerable populations are going to end up with the most vulnerable issues such as this virus. They are the ones who are the diabetics. They are the ones who are the hypertensives. They're the ones that have inadequate housing, food and water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As infection rates soared among the immigrant community, the spreading crisis caught the attention of a local pastor, who linked up with other groups like the Legal Aid Justice Center to demand action. Jason Yarashes heads the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers for the center.

JASON YARASHES: We did some pretty incredible grassroots organizing with coalition leaders, workers, labor advocates to try to come up with a creative strategy to figure out what we could do. And while at the same time, our organization has, along with partner organizations - we're petitioning the governor to ask for enforceable regulations. We had community members coming together, and we had socially distanced car rallies out here on the shore in the valley in front of poultry plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It was a louder-than-normal shift change outside the Perdue plant here in Accomac because for nearly an hour, this is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: More than 50 cars full of employees...

YARASHES: It's really difficult to do organizing in rural - in anywhere but most particularly in rural areas. And so at each rally, we had 50 cars come out - multiracial, across different socioeconomic spectrums - folks coming out to say, we really have to protect workers during this - what we were viewing as an emergency within an emergency.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Among those organizing was H. We're only using an initial because she is undocumented. She worked in the other poultry plant on the Eastern Shore. Tyson has a big operation here, too, and she says she was surprised by how people came together for this cause.

H: (Through interpreter) It's the first time you see people from different ethnicities joined together like this. It was hard with the Latino community to get them involved because they don't want to draw attention to themselves because so many are undocumented.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She has a lot of friends who still work in the plants.

H: (Through interpreter) Many of the people I know got sick. Not all of them got very ill, but some were very bad. It's a lot of pain all over the body, a lot of fever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She knew two people who died of COVID-19 in this area. Because of the lobbying and the pressure, this past week, the new standards were adopted. H says she was thrilled when she got the call. Jason Yarashes says it's a huge achievement.

YARASHES: It has protections relating to flexible sick leave policies, information required to be provided to workers in the instance of positive tests in the workplace, as well as reporting to government agencies and, when there's multiple instances, to the Department of Labor and Industry. It has standards for physical distancing. It has standards for PPE and respirators. And most importantly, it has protections related to antidiscrimination and whistleblower protections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a statement to NPR, Perdue noted that after that CDC visit in May, new measures were put in place, like additional sanitization and installing partitions where social distancing wasn't possible. Tyson told us they, quote, "consistently met or exceeded CDC and OSHA guidance on which the Virginia standard seems to be based," unquote. Infections from the plants are indeed now way down. But Jason Yarashes says this legislation will now ensure that everyone in Virginia gets these same kinds of protections in all industries.

YARASHES: With the passing of this standard, what was really incredible to me is that, usually, the narrative is that immigrant workers, farm workers are the least protected under laws. That's absolutely true and sad and unfortunate. But what happened here was those workers spoke up and, against all the odds, passed this standard and now have protections not just for themselves but all - for all the workers throughout the commonwealth - so flipping that narrative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are some open questions still. How will these new standards be enforced? And will Congress step in to blunt them? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants liability protections for businesses as a condition for any further pandemic relief. But H says that passing these safety rules makes her hopeful, even as the pandemic has an outsize effect on Virginia's Latino community, which is 10% of the state's population but nearly 30% of the state's coronavirus cases.

H: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that through speaking out and fighting for their rights, things can change for Latino workers in this country.

H: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Because," she says, "they are the most essential workers in the United States."

H: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "They are the people who bring the food to your house. And thanks to them, you can sit at your table and eat." And she says we should take care of them.

H: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "THIS IS THE LAST TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.