By Carol Vaughn —
Industry officials said this week they are taking steps to protect employees at the Eastern Shore’s two poultry processing plants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, a half dozen workers from the plants contacted the Post this week — saying they do not feel safe going to work after finding out coworkers tested positive for the virus. Some have taken time off or walked off the job.
Most said they would like to see the facilities shut down temporarily to allow for a thorough cleaning.
Most did not want their names used.
“I don’t think they are taking the proper measures to lower the exposure that we can get to these,” said Markita Davis, who works at Tyson Foods and has two young children. She said she took time off this week “to be safe.”
“I think that they should disclose that there are positive cases in the plants.…At Tyson, maybe two weeks ago, we were only told that there were two positive cases. I found out about three more through Facebook,” she said.
The death Tuesday of a woman who worked at Perdue, reportedly from the virus, is heightening workers’ concerns, according to callers.
The concerns come amid reports of multiple employees falling ill, and news that the Eastern Shore has three COVID-19 outbreaks in congregate settings.
Jon Richardson, senior environmental health manager at the Eastern Shore Health District, said poultry plants meet the definition of a congregate setting, but said it is health department practice not to identify facilities with outbreaks by name.
“However, we strongly encourage the facility to be proactive and transparent with their messaging,” he said.
The outbreaks “have been the source of the majority of our cases here on the Shore over the past five days, and now account for more than 50% of our total for the entire Shore,” Richardson said.
The Eastern Shore as of Wednesday had 59 confirmed COVID-19 cases — 52 in Accomack County and seven in Northampton County. Sixteen people have been hospitalized, according to the VDH website.
The Eastern Shore Health District Wednesday announced two additional deaths from COVID-19 — a man in his 50s and a woman in her 50s — bringing the death number on the Shore to three.
Poultry plant employees make up almost 7% of the Shore population — and nearly 12 percent of Accomack County’s workforce, according to the county’s latest comprehensive financial report.
The two facilities — Perdue Farms in Accomac and Tyson Foods in Temperanceville — are the two top employers in Accomack County.
Together they have more than 3,040 employees, according to Accomack County’s 2020 Annual Poultry Report.
Spokespeople for each company confirmed there have been COVID-19 cases among employees, but declined to give specifics.
“We have had a limited number of cases in our facilities. With each confirmed case, we immediately enact our pandemic response protocols, work with the local health department and follow strict guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Diana Souder, Director of Corporate Communications and Brand PR for Perdue Farms, Inc., via email.
Souder added, “We’ve decided not to specify every individual case moving forward out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines.”
Tyson spokesperson Worth Sparkman said in an email the company “is not sharing specific numbers” of employees who become ill, “since this is an ever-changing situation.”
Centers for Disease Control guidelines call for a 14-day quarantine for someone exposed to COVID-19, but the agency issued separate guidance for critical infrastructure workers, including at food processing facilities, which allows those exposed to return to work “under certain conditions as long as they take precautions and remain asymptomatic,” Richardson said.
Both companies say they have implemented measures to enhance safety during the pandemic.
“Our workplace safety efforts are significant and strictly enforced,” Sparkman said, adding, “We’re implementing social distancing in our plants based on CDC and industry guidance, such as increasing the distance between workers on the production floor, (and) installing workstation dividers and barriers in our breakrooms….We’ve been evaluating and implementing ways to promote more social distancing in our plants. For example, at some locations we’re:
Allowing more time between shifts to reduce worker interaction
Giving team members more space by erecting large tents to serve as outdoor break rooms
Removing chairs in some break rooms so there is more space between the workers (and)
Eliminating conference room meetings and the size of new orientation classes.”
Sparkman said plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety, and added, “We have significantly stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas to protect our team members.”
Additionally, he said plants may sometimes suspend a day of production to complete an additional deep clean of facilities as an added precaution — although workers who called the Post said that has not happened here.
Tyson announced April 15 it began receiving supplies of non-medical face coverings for employees across the nation, and said the current supply is expected to last up to four months. The company also developed guidance in early April for employees wearing personal cloth face masks.
Additionally, the company is using walk-through temperature scanners.
Perdue has increased sanitation protocols and installed temporary dividers between employees on production lines where social distancing is not possible, according to the company website.
After an earlier version of this story appeared online Wednesday, the company’s Temperanceville plant announced on its Facebook page it would not operate either shift Friday, April 24, and the plant would undergo “a deep cleanse” April 24, 25, and 26.
Perdue also is using temperature scanners, and has implemented a disposable mask program at all production facilities.
An industry spokesman said “reduced employee attendance at chicken processing plants is an issue on Delmarva and across the U.S. during this unusual time.”
Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. spokesman James Fisher said some plants on Delmarva are operating below their normal capacity as a result.
“These are extraordinary times and these are extraordinary situations, and everyone in the chicken community is doing all that we can to stop the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining a safe food supply,” he said.
Dr. Norman Oliver, state health commissioner, during a press briefing Monday, acknowledged meat processing facilities around the country have been sites of COVID-19 outbreaks, and said there have been outbreaks “in a couple of facilities here in Virginia.”
Local health departments “have worked very closely with plant managers, the occupational health people in the plants, providing them with PPE (personal protective equipment), doing case identification, talking to them and working with them on finding ways to contain any spread of the disease — providing suggestions around that — and we will continue to do that,” Oliver said, adding, “I think that we are staying on top of this, and we will make sure that those workers are as safe as we can possibly make them.”
The Rev. Willie Justis, a local pastor and Virginia Organizing member, has formed a coalition to address concerns about the poultry plants.
“I’ve taken the initiative to try to bring some attention” to the situation, Justis said, adding,“…They are absolutely setting themselves up for more of an outbreak.”
Justis has held two conference calls to date to discuss concerns about poultry workers during the pandemic.
The Richmond-based Legal Aid Justice Center is among those working with the coalition, he said.
Jason Yarashes, lead attorney and program coordinator for the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at the center, spends much of his time representing low-wage workers “who are doing very difficult work…It’s a time where people are more scared than ever and are subject to worse conditions than ever, and are doing more than ever for people…It really highlights the lack of protections that folks have,” he said.
Poultry workers, deemed essential during the pandemic, are “literally the people that are putting protein on America’s plates…that are put in the tremendously difficult position of risking their own health,” Yarashes said.
The federal First Coronavirus Response Act — which includes provisions meant to help workers, such as 14 days of paid leave for workers affected by the pandemic — exempts large companies like Tyson and Perdue, Yarashes said.
Conditions including having to work elbow-to-elbow on production lines; crowded break rooms, lack of sick leave, lack of time to wash hands frequently, and more, make work difficult for poultry workers in normal times, and even more so now, according to Yarashes.
“We have already seen these massive outbreaks at places like Smithfield in Sioux Falls, and what that could look like,” he said.
The Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota shut down temporarily April 15 after more than 600 cases were confirmed among employees or their contacts, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
“There’s different pieces here — what is each company saying, versus what they are actually doing….Some of the companies have taken actions, but they are either insufficient or too little, too late,” Yarashes said.
“You are put, as a worker, into an impossible position…You have to make a decision of, I go to work, and I’m able to feed my kids, but I potentially get sick and bring that back to my kids…or, you don’t go in to work, you possibly don’t get sick, but you also can’t feed your kids. For people that are providing food for all of us —that is a shock to me,” Yarashes said.
The Legal Aid Center is partnering with community groups to put pressure on companies “to do the right thing,” and on the government “to enact enhanced state and local regulations” to protect workers, he said.
“When people can’t speak for themselves, they need someone to speak up for them,” Justis said.
He talked about one employee he knows of— potentially exposed to someone with COVID while working at the Tyson plant — who lives in close quarters with five family members in a mobile home.
“That’s the biggest concern — that you can have it and go and infect your whole family,” Justis said.
The Legal Aid Justice Center has a website, in English and in Spanish:
The center’s hotline phone number for workers is 434-242-1494.