Arkansas Poultry Workers Amid the Coronavirus: ‘We’re Not Essential, We’re Expendable’
The chickens are killed so close to her that the blood splatters on her face. “They give us face masks, but they only give us one a day,” she said. “But they are live animals, and there is blood.” Though her face mask is quickly soaked, she must continue with her shift.
She does not want to wear the same bloody mask all day, so she has taken to saving old masks to reuse. Every day when she gets home after her shift, she cleans her masks: “I pour a bit of hot water on them and vinegar so that the bacteria die. Then I hang them out to dry. They are thin and dry quickly, and the next day I take them back [to work].”
“Carmen” has worked at the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Dardanelle for more than a decade. Like the other workers interviewed for this story, she spoke to a reporter on the condition that her real name not be used. Carmen came to the U.S. from Central America after witnessing the murder of a family member. Today, she makes $13 an hour, and she worries about contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. While most Americans are self-quarantined, Carmen spends her days on a line where the other workers are so close she described them as “stuck together.”
As of May 7, the Arkansas Department of Health had identified 64 cases of people testing positive for COVID-19 in poultry plants or facilities that service the poultry industry. At least one poultry worker in the state has died of the virus, ADH public information officer Danyelle McNeill confirmed. “There have been fewer than five deaths,” she wrote in an email. (Due to privacy concerns, the agency will not release an exact number of deaths within a given group unless that figure is five or greater.)
By the end of April, COVID-19 had killed more than 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers around the country, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The report did not include any deaths in Arkansas.) The pandemic has forced meat-processing plants across the U.S. to close. Tyson’s largest pork-producing facility was among them; the Waterloo, Iowa, plant suspended operations from April 22 to May 6 after nearly 200 of its approximately 2,800 workers tested positive for the virus. The closures have raised fears of supply shortages, prompting President Trump to issue an executive order on April 28 declaring meat-processing and poultry-processing facilities to be “critical infrastructure” and giving them more latitude to stay open even in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Arkansas is one of the largest poultry producers in the country, but none of its 33 major meat-processing plants has closed as of May 11. Springdale-based Tyson, the world’s second-largest producer of chicken, beef and pork, insists it is taking sufficient precautions in the wake of the Waterloo plant closure. In March, Tyson announced that it would relax punitive attendance policies and begin paying for workers’ COVID-19 testing. The company takes workers’ temperatures before every shift and has installed workstation dividers on production lines. It has promised to pay $120 million in “thank you” bonuses to frontline workers and truckers. Tyson has also mounted a massive PR campaign, buying a full-page ad that ran April 26 in The New York Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other newspapers to warn of meat shortages.
The CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have issued COVID-19 guidelines for meat and poultry processors. But many Arkansas poultry workers fear it is only a matter of time before the virus sweeps through their workplaces. In April, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network spoke to several workers who raised questions about whether their employers were focused on maintaining production at the cost of worker safety. They described crowded conditions and a lack of communication from management about COVID-19 cases. When ANNN interviewed the same workers several weeks later, they said their plants had instituted a few changes, but they still had little confidence they were being kept safe.
In May, Carmen said managers at her plant had informed her that two individuals who work in her area had tested positive for coronavirus but refused to tell workers the names of the people. “I could get infected, you could get infected, because we don’t know, God forbid,” Carmen said. “They should say, ‘Hey, this person has coronavirus,’ but, no, they don’t say it.”
On April 22, organizers with Venceremos, a worker-led organization that advocates for the rights of poultry workers in Arkansas, brought a petition signed by more than 170 Tyson workers to one of the company’s plants in Springdale. They demanded better benefits for workers, including full paid sick leave, and greater transparency about known cases of the virus. Since then, Tyson has announced that workers sickened with COVID-19 will receive short-term disability wages equivalent to 90 percent of their normal pay, rather than the lower rate offered previously.
Magaly Licolli, the co-founder of Venceremos, said Tyson needs to do more, including restructuring its workstations to allow for more social distancing. “We know production will decrease in volume, but that’s how they could truly show they care for their team members more than for profits,” she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, state health officials say they now hold meat processors to different standards from other factories because of the president’s recent executive order. Dr. Richard McMullen, the state environmental health director at ADH, said that workers in other industries — even other types of food-processing plants — are typically sent home to self-quarantine if they have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
“In the case of meat and poultry workers, they are considered to be critical infrastructure workers, and they are allowed to continue to work in a facility provided that special precautions are taken and they have continued to be symptom-free,” McMullen said. “We want to protect them and maintain food production.”
Until early May, “Tim” worked in maintenance at a Simmons Foods plant in Van Buren, where he made $21 an hour. In an April interview, he described an environment in which social distancing was little more than a talking point. “We’re all nervous as soon as we clock in,” he said. “We’re in a little hallway that is 3½ to 4 feet wide and we’re standing 6 to 8 inches from each other.”
After clocking in, Tim said, he would head to the floor, where he’d see line workers standing elbow to elbow. Common areas were similarly crowded. “They send us all to break at the same time. The lunchroom is packed,” he said. Tim said the plant added water to the hand soap in its restrooms, potentially diluting one of the most effective tools against the spread of the coronavirus.
When ANNN reached out to Tim again in May, he said he had just quit his job at Simmons. “You know, I got kids, and I didn’t feel that it was safe to continue working in that type of environment,” he said.
Although the plant was now screening its employees’ temperatures each day, Tim felt Simmons was taking few other serious precautions. The plant had mandated that all workers wear masks, Tim said, but each worker was limited to one mask per week. “I mean, working at a chicken processing plant, you’re getting chicken juice on you — flour, breader, all kinds of nasty stuff. … They were having us wear the same hairnets, beard nets and gloves for a week, and earplugs, which was really unsanitary, I thought,” he said.
Workers were still tightly packed on production lines, he said, because spacing them out would cause line production to slow. Tim said he wasn’t aware of anyone testing positive for coronavirus at his former plant, but he didn’t believe workers would be informed if cases appeared. “They don’t care about anybody as long as they make their money,” he said.
“We’re not essential. We’re expendable, and that is the truth,” he said.
Simmons COO David Jackson said in a statement that Simmons was “working diligently every single day to evaluate ongoing efforts, make improvements following evolving CDC and OSHA guidance, and ensure our facilities have adequate PPE [protective personal equipment], hand sanitizing solution and other necessary supplies.”
Jackson said the company has expanded common areas and installed protective barriers between workstations. He emphasized Simmons’ provision of “affordable and convenient health care” to employees.
Any worker who has been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive worker would be notified and required to quarantine, Jackson said. However, he did not respond directly to the question of how the company determines which employees would be notified if a coworker is infected with the virus at a Simmons Foods plant. “Our protocol is to do all we can to protect the health and safety of our team members while they are at work. It’s also important that we protect the privacy of team members, therefore we do not announce confirmed cases,” he wrote.
McMullen, the state health official, said the agency’s contact-tracing team reaches out to anyone known to have been in contact with an infected person, based on an interview with the person. But, aside from the patient interview, “we do kind of rely on that facility to be able to identify who that worker has worked next to,” he said.
Employers are not required to inform every worker in a facility if someone tests positive for the coronavirus. Even if a person who tested positive shared a restroom or a break room with everyone else in the building, an employer might choose to only notify those workers who were stationed near the person.
“People have a right to know if they’ve been potentially exposed, and you would expect them to be notified. But if it’s a worker on an adjacent line that doesn’t have a lot of contact, that person doesn’t necessarily need to know about some other person’s personal health,” McMullen said.
“José,” who is originally from Mexico, has worked for Tyson for years, first in Springdale and later in Rogers. He makes $14 an hour working on a line that processes chicken into chicken fingers.
In April, José said that Tyson checked the temperature of workers as they entered the plant each day, but that once he reached the line where he worked, social distancing was impossible. “The workstations are marked, and you can’t move the machines so that people are farther apart,” he said. He said he had heard of COVID-19 cases at his plant but feared management was “keeping such information from the workers,” prompting him to take his safety into his own hands and ask for unpaid leave. “I asked if I could stay at home because they aren’t taking appropriate security measures to protect us,” he explained.
By May, José was back at work. He reported that the plant had installed plastic dividers in the lunchroom area and on some production lines and provided masks to employees. He said there were many places where social distancing was not happening, however, such as in restrooms and in hallways when clocking in.
The company had told employees that one worker had tested positive for COVID-19, José said, “but it is impossible that there is only one case because that person was working for several days until symptoms appeared.” After management confirmed the existence of the case to workers, he added, “They never closed the line. They never washed it. They never tested the other people who were there.”
Derek Burleson, a public relations manager at Tyson, said the company’s top priority is its employees’ health and well-being. In an email to ANNN he wrote, “We will not ask anyone to work in our plants unless we are confident it is safe. We will not hesitate to idle plants to enhance health and safety measures, conduct deep cleaning and sanitizing and protect our team members.” Burleson said Tyson had implemented social-distancing measures throughout its facilities and had staggered its shift start times to prevent large congregations of workers at the entrance to plants.
“María,” who fled El Salvador as a teen, has worked for just shy of two decades at Tyson in Springdale. She has held several jobs at the plant, including breading chicken and cutting bruised or rotten pieces off the birds, and makes $13.35 an hour.
“The truth is I am very scared … I don’t feel safe and that is why I haven’t gone to work,” she said in an April interview. She told management at the time that she had nobody to care for her children that week, and needed to stay at home. In reality, she did have childcare available but wanted the days off to protect herself and her family in the hope that the plant would improve its efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by the time she returned.
When Maria was interviewed for this story again in May, she had been back at Tyson for two weeks and still felt anxious. “I am always afraid here because they don’t tell the truth. There are sick, infected people here, and they don’t tell us,” she said.
María said management at her plant had told workers of a few cases of the coronavirus, but she felt sure there were more cases than had been acknowledged. Because she felt the lunchroom was crowded and not being disinfected properly, she decided to eat lunch in her car every day.
Like the other workers interviewed for this story, she feared retaliation for speaking to a reporter. “They made me sign a contract that said that if you have problems, that you have to talk to management, never with the media. People are afraid they will be fired,” she said.
Burleson denied this. “It’s not true that we have a policy requiring team members sign contracts indicating they will be terminated for speaking to media,” he said.
Licolli, the worker advocate, said Tyson was not testing workers widely enough and not sharing information about known cases. “The biggest concern right now is that the company is suppressing the information of how many workers are already sick,” she wrote in an email.
“We want Tyson to be transparent and to follow the recommendations under the CDC guidance that says workers must be notified and areas should be shut down [for] deep cleaning, and to allow workers to come back to work once it’s safe,” Licolli said.
Burleson said the company would not publicly release numbers of cases at its facilities “due to the ever-changing nature of the situation.”
“If there is a confirmed case at one of our locations, as part of our protocol and in collaboration with health officials, we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person. We also inform team members who have not been exposed and provide information to our supervisors so they can help answer questions,” he wrote.
McMullen, the health department official, said Trump’s April 28 executive order changed the state agency’s approach to COVID-19 cases in poultry plants. Because meat processors are now considered “critical infrastructure,” even workers who have had sustained, direct exposure to a COVID-19-positive person may be told to continue to work.
Burleson said Tyson had not changed its policies regarding plant closures as a result of the critical-infrastructure designation. “From the start, Tyson has followed the CDC and OSHA guidance and risk assessments as they have evolved to determine which team members to isolate from the workplace and when to return them to work,” he said.
Jackson, the Simmons executive, said the company requires quarantine “for any team members who have been in close contact with another team member who has tested positive.”
Burleson said Tyson had boosted pay for quarantined workers. “All employees who have tested positive will remain on sick leave until they have satisfied official health requirements outlined by the CDC for return to work, and we have increased short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30 to encourage team members to stay home when they are sick,” he wrote. Previously, short-term disability only provided 20 hours’ worth of pay out of a 40-hour work week.
The increase followed public pressure, including the campaign organized by Venceremos. But, Licolli said, “they won’t necessarily inform this to workers, so I know many of them don’t know about this.” Both María and José told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network they thought Tyson was still providing disability pay equivalent to just 50 percent of a typical work week.
Workers at meat-processing plants across the state are often immigrants and often undocumented. Immigrants who work in poultry processing in Arkansas are primarily from Mexico and Central America, but also include the Marshallese and the Burmese. A 2018 investigation of the meat-processing industry by Bloomberg Businessweek found that about a third of meat-industry workers were foreign-born noncitizens.
“Ler Pwe Paw,” a refugee from Myanmar, has worked in sanitation at Tyson in Clarksville for three years alongside several members of his family. He is one of some 300 Burmese refugees who settled in Clarksville, many of whom work at Tyson. Ler Pwe Paw and his family are Karen, an ethnic minority that has faced military attacks and forced labor and have had homes and crops destroyed in Myanmar. He came to the U.S. in 2012 with his parents, fleeing ethnic persecution.
Ler Pwe Paw said that Tyson was providing masks and checking temperatures, but that social distancing still proved a challenge. “I don’t want to get coronavirus, and I’m scared — I don’t want that,” he said, adding that he was more worried about his father, who is almost 70 and also works at Tyson. Ler Pwe Paw makes $12.75 an hour and overall he said, “It is a good job.”
McMullen said immigrant workers may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of discrimination, poverty, a lack of health insurance and other factors. “Some of these people might be undocumented, and in that case some of them might be fearful to come forward. … They may be very sensitive to losing a paycheck,” he said. McMullen said he was concerned that some immigrants might feel the need to keep coming to work even if they didn’t feel well.
José has thought about quitting, but he has children and his job options are limited with so many businesses closed. Everyone he works with is scared, he said. The same day management confirmed a worker in the plant had tested positive for COVID-19, he said, “they told us that we could stay home but we wouldn’t be paid. They said we would only be paid if we got sick from the virus. It is like making fun of us and saying, ‘Get sick, and I will pay you.’ People have no other choice.”
Alice Driver is a bilingual journalist based in Mexico City. Her narrative non-fiction, feature writing & audio work have appeared in National Geographic, Time, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Outside, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Longreads, and NBC News.