Concern for poultry plant employees ratchets up after worker dies of COVID-19

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, and Jacob Lester, contributor

The Valley’s poultry plants are under increasing pressure, including from concerned workers, to tighten safety measures in an effort to protect against the spread of COVID-19. It intensified Monday after an employee at one of the plants died from the virus and as community members led a “car rally” on the workers’ behalf.

A spokesperson for Cargill, which runs the poultry processing plant in Dayton, confirmed Monday evening the death of the employee. 

“This person was not working at the time and was self-quarantined following our detailed screening process,” the statement said, although the spokesperson didn’t identify the worker. “Our sympathy is with the family who is mourning the loss of a loved one.” 

The family of Lauro Carlos Bautista, who worked at the Dayton Cargill facility, posted on Facebook that Bautista died Thursday from COVID-19. The post said he had no history of poor health. Bautista’s family did not respond to The Citizen’s request for an interview.

Another employee of the Dayton Cargill facility, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their job, said Bautista was over 60 years old, worked second shift in the “whole birds” area of the plant and had been with the company for over 25 years. He had developed a cough and was told to go home, the employee said. 

The employee said other coworkers have tested positive and are quarantined at home, while others continue to work despite exhibiting flu- and cold-like symptoms. Not all workers who want to get tested for COVID-19 have been able to, including many who worked alongside Bautista in the whole birds area, said the Cargill employee. 

In the meantime, the plant is short on workers. And even though the employee suffers from diabetes, which the CDC says could increase the risk of “severe illness from COVID-19,” they said they intend to work as long as possible.

“Everybody at the plant is scared,” the employee said. 

The statement from the Cargill spokesperson, sent to The Citizen Monday evening, said the company is working with local health departments “to take every possible precaution to keep our employees safe while we work to nourish the world.” 

“We care about our teammates –their safety remains our focus,” the statement said. “Our services have been deemed essential – like healthcare workers and first responders. However, Cargill will only operate our facilities if we can do so safely. As we continue our work to keep people fed at this critical time, our focus is protecting the health of our employees and preventing the spread of the virus.”

Among the measures the company said it implemented at the Dayton facility include providing employees with face masks and taking their temperatures and prohibiting visitors from entering facilities. 

In addition, the company is enforcing mandatory 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive for COVID-19 or for any employees who came into contact with a co-worker who tested positive, the statement said.  

As for workplace changes, the Cargill statement says the company is “enhancing the cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities” and “increasing distancing between employees,” although it did not describe how it’s enforcing that.

“In addition to the health and safety measures mentioned above, we are offering enhanced benefits for our employees, including providing up to 14 days of additional paid leave for COVID-19 related needs,” Cargill’s spokesperson added. “We care deeply about our co-workers and the communities where we live and work.”

About a week and a half ago, Cargill began providing new masks each day and requiring workers to wear them, the employee said. But in some areas of the plant, people are still working in close proximity.

Randy Batson, the general manager at the Dayton facility, said he couldn’t comment and referred questions to Cargill’s corporate headquarters. 

Pilgrim’s Pride employee Nody Gonzalez has been bringing her own mask from home to use at work.

‘…Waiting for someone to die’ 

 The Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Timberville has implemented many of the same protective measures. But employee Nody Gonzalez said she started bringing her own mask from home to replace one the company provided, which was reused for days. She said she’s worked at the plant for about two months on first shift, after spending seven years with Cargill. 

“They give me one mask like maybe three weeks ago when they told us they have two positive cases – one in first shift and another in second shift,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez was one of the workers who protested outside the plant on April 3, as WHSV and the Daily News-Record first reported. More than two dozen workers asked the company to take stronger precautions after they found out an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Gonzalez and her coworkers want the plant to close down for two weeks to completely disinfect the facility.

“We told them that we want two weeks, at least, because we were afraid after they told us that they have cases over there,” she said. “But they tell us no, we can’t. Some people took some vacations … some just left.”

She told The Citizen that so many people have left the plant that they have closed down two or three lines of production. Gonzalez was moved to a new position, cutting chicken legs on second shift, because her old line is currently closed because of the staffing shortages.

From what Gonzalez has heard from other poultry workers in the Valley, Pilgrim’s Pride was one of the last plants in the area to start checking temperatures. The plant put up plastic barriers between cafeteria tables, but employees still work in close proximity in many areas.

Gonzalez recounted seeing “two persons hanging the chicken, and they work very close, like maybe two feet. So in some places, they care, and other other places, they don’t care if people are close to each other.”

She said she’s scared, not only for herself, but also for her two children and 62-year-old mother with whom she lives. But she has bills to pay.

“They don’t care about the people,” Gonzalez said. “They’re just running everything like it’s normal … why don’t they close? Why? They are still waiting for what? So I tell [my coworkers], maybe they are waiting for somebody to die.”

Pilgrim’s Pride directed The Citizen to contact a representative of its parent company, international meat processors JBS S.A. The representative from the Brazil-based corporation didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

A car rally Monday drew about 40 people to raise awareness about poultry workers.

Challenges of social distancing 

The Virginia Poultry Federation’s president Hobey Bauhan told The Citizen on April 16 (after the protests in Timberville but before Bautista’s death) that, among local plants, there are “not specifically any confirmed cases I am aware of … there are of course cases within the poultry industry. We are not immune.”

On April 7, Bauhan participated in a meeting with the Virginia Department of Health, member companies, and the county and city emergency management teams to explain what the industry is doing in response to COVID-19 and receive feedback. 

“I think that its implementation has been very good and poultry plants are doing all the best practices, signage and enhanced communication, enhanced sanitation and disinfection … sanitation is a major focus in normal times, but many plants have added employees to increase cleaning,” he said. 

In a public statement, Bauhan said local plants have instituted measures such as health and temperature screenings, encouraging employees to wear masks and devoting staff time to making masks.

Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, wrote in an email response to The Citizen that the health department has worked with the plants and poultry federation “to ensure understanding” of guidelines issued by both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as the Centers for Disease Control in order to prevent spreading COVID-19 in workplaces. 

Kornegay said “the difficulty with social distancing” is a particular challenge for plants, such as meat processors. 

The CDC writes that “meat and poultry processing workers often work close to one another on processing lines” and often for prolonged periods of time, increasing the risk of infection. The website encourages employers to keep workers six feet apart in all directions when possible, stagger arrival and departure times and wear cloth face coverings, which “may be especially important when social distancing is not possible or feasible based on working conditions.”

While they can make recommendations, the Virginia Department of Health “has no regulatory authority over poultry plants,” Kornegay wrote. 

She also said the department can’t release details on investigations or even confirm whether they are conducting any in local poultry plants.

Community members’ advocacy 

Sal Romero, vice-mayor of the Harrisonburg City Council, said he has been communicating with poultry plant workers via phone and Facebook, where he posts informational videos in Spanish and invites the community to reach out. 

“The workers have a lot of fear. They are not feeling that enough is being done. The plants are not providing the PPE (personal protective equipment) workers need to protect themselves,” Romero said. “I think a better job is now being done in the break rooms and staggering breaks. They’ve set up tents and expanded the areas for people to break.” 

But, he added, “on the line, it’s still shoulder to shoulder.” 

Romero posted a video recently advising workers who feel unsafe to file a report with OSHA “and demand that they provide those protections.”

Romero isn’t the only person advocating for the workers’ safety. On April 27, the Legal Aid Justice Center alongside Virginia Organizing, Community Solidarity for Poultry Workers, and Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy organized statewide “car rallies” as part of a campaign to draw attention to what they describe as inadequate protections for workers in poultry plants. 

The Harrisonburg rally drew about 40 vehicles to City Hall on Monday afternoon, bearing signs like “Love your neighbor (poultry workers) as yourself; protect them from COVID-19.” 

The caravan drove to the Rockingham County Administration building, George’s Inc., and the Cargill plant in Dayton to show support for the workers.

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