As shoppers clear chicken off grocery store shelves, poultry processing workers are feeling the pressure to meet demand inside crowded plants during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, several plants have workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.
In a memo to employees dated March 31 and obtained by HuffPost, Sanderson Farms, one of the largest poultry producers in the country, said the virus had stricken least 11 of its employees in six facilities in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
On a call with investors Thursday, Lampkin Butts, the company’s president, said the number had grown to 15, according to WATTAgNet, an industry news site.
In his memo, Butts said the company’s plants are turning away any worker who registers a temperature of 100 degrees or higher. The company has encouraged sick workers to stay home, but said they will only be paid if they supply a doctor’s note. Obtaining one may not be so simple for some workers, especially at a time when many doctors are encouraging web-based consultations.
“The note from your doctor must be specific to your current illness or medical condition,” the memo stated.
Sanderson Farms is not unique in its battle with the virus. Perdue had to temporarily close a plant in Delaware after two workers there tested positive, and other companies’ plants have reported cases and temporarily closed.
The Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence so far of the coronavirus being transmitted through food.
The National Chicken Council, a lobby group for the industry, said chicken sales shot up 77% in the middle of March, when schools and workplaces began to close due to the spread of COVID-19. Processors have tried to keep up with demand.
The burden to restock refrigerators and freezers is falling on workers who stand side by side on processing lines around the country. Poultry plants are deemed “essential” during the crisis because they play a critical role in the food supply chain, and employees have continued to work in states with stay-at-home orders in place.
Worker advocacy groups are worried the pressure to meet demand will prompt employers to take shortcuts on health and safety in plants that can already be dangerous.
The rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the poultry and meat processing industry is above the rate for all workers, and many incidents probably go unreported. A large share of poultry workers are immigrants who may speak little or no English and may be reluctant to report hazards.
Workers at Sanderson Farms got a separate letter from Butts last week underscoring the strain facilities are under, noting that the lack of available chicken was creating anxiety among the public.
“Some people in areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19 are going to grocery stores and finding empty shelves and meat cases,” Butts wrote to workers. “The discovery only heightens the stress and anxiety that they are already experiencing. When you make the decision to get up and come to work each day, you are supporting not only yourself and your family, but the entire nation.”
Workers are no doubt feeling anxious themselves, given the growing number of positive tests in processing facilities. Sanderson Farms was the first poultry processor to announce a confirmed case, at a facility in Mississippi last week. A spokesperson for the company couldn’t be reached for comment.
Butts said in a recent letter that the company would be offering workers an extra $1 per hour as a “weekly attendance bonus.” “You must have perfect attendance during the week in order to earn it,” the letter stated. The average wage for a poultry processing worker in the U.S. is between $13 and $14 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In an earlier note to workers, Butts made a patriotic appeal: “We call upon you to look at this crisis as an opportunity to serve, as we do. Now, more than ever, we need to come together as a Company and a Nation, and continue to provide the critical supply of food we all need.”
The company has implemented travel restrictions for employees, many of whom are immigrants.
One Sanderson Farms worker in Texas, who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said it’s not possible for workers to space out inside the plant, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended. She described employees as standing right beside each other along the processing lines.
The Labor Rights Center, a worker advocacy group based in Bryan, Texas, sent a letter late last month to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) laying out its “serious concerns” about the Sanderson Farms facility there during the pandemic.
Nora Morales, the group’s president, said workers in the plant stand “elbow to elbow on the production line,” and that “management has not instituted any type of social distancing.” She said a chemical used inside the plant gives workers a dry cough that may be difficult to distinguish from symptoms related to COVID-19.
“The working conditions in our plant exacerbate the problem because workers who may be sick are desperate for a paycheck because the company does not have appropriate paid leave policies,” Morales wrote.
Bloomberg reported Thursday that poultry plants all around the world are feeling the squeeze, and so are the government safety inspectors inside U.S. plants. Dozens who are at high risk for coronavirus infection have gone on leave, and a New York inspector recently died of COVID-19.
Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, told HuffPost in an email that companies were ramping up their cleaning processes inside plants and screening workers for illness. He also said they were practicing social distancing inside break areas and also on the processing lines “where possible.”
Super said “these are certainly trying and unprecedented times, and our members are doing everything they can to 1) Keep their employees safe and 2) Work to keep chicken on the shelves. In that order.”