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“We Can't Stay Home” - Meat Packers In North Carolina ‘Sacrifice Safety For A Weekly Paycheck’

Published Tuesday, May 26, 2020
by WRAL News
“We Can't Stay Home” - Meat Packers In North Carolina ‘Sacrifice Safety For A Weekly Paycheck’

(TAR HEEL, NORTH CAROLINA) - COVID-19 is spreading rapidly though Meat Processing Plants in the State of North Carolina as State Health and Agriculture Officials work to keep production lines running.  North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) says 1,675 Workers have tested positive for Coronavirus at 26 plants in 17 counties.

And the number of infections has more than tripled from 479 cases at 13 plants in late April when Republican President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order declaring Meat Processing Facilities at Smithfield Foods' Plant in Tar Heel.  The latest figures show 49 new cases identified has brought that total there to at least 125 infections.  However, the number is likely higher because DHHS and some local Health Department aren't reporting case totals by employer.

"It is ‘risky for us, but we can't miss work.’  ‘We can't stay home,’" said one Undocumented Immigrant Worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "We are ‘afraid of this disease.’"

The woman doesn't receive Paid Sick Leave and her undocumented status prevents her from receiving a Stimulus Check, Unemployment Benefits or any other government help.

Dr. Angela Stuesse, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - who has studied the poultry industry for 20 years, said Meat Packing Plants across the Nation rely heavily on Undocumented Immigrants.

“It ‘helps us understand why it’s so hard’ for Workers ‘to gain any power (and) to demand higher’ wages, ‘better’ working conditions ‘and the right to sick pay’," Stuesse said.

Forced to choose between a paycheck and their safety, Stuesse said infected Employees are likely reporting to work: "Folks who are working in these industries ‘do not have a nest egg to fall back on.’"

Meat Processing Companies, including Smithfield Foods, Butterball and Tyson Foods, all say they have updated policies to distance Employees on their production lines and have increased the frequency of cleaning inside their plants.

Workers have told WRAL News in numerous interviews that safety measures, like face masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), were made readily available after many of their Co-Workers tested positive for the virus.

Stuesse said Workers in the processing plants work in cramped and cold conditions and feel scared to speak out to management.

“When Workers join a Union and start to organize or get sick with COVID and need support, often times, ‘that’s when (management) discovers someone’s documentation status,’" said Stuesse, who added some corporations may turn a blind eye to Workers' Documentation Status.

Stuesse points out many Employees are hired by contractors who procure a workforce for the larger companies.

Smithfield Foods said it offers Paid Sick Leave for Employees at "high risk for serious complications from COVID-19."

The company also said it never "knowingly" hires Undocumented Workers.

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