Gregoria Riva’s two year-old son jumps up and down, the TV playing in the background. He is bored, she says, but she can’t risk letting him play outside with other kids. Riva is the sole caretaker of young Santiago. And until recently, she was employed at a meat processing plant, one of the workplaces with increased risk for COVID-19.
“I spent a month there working in fear,” she said during a recent phone conversation referring to the heightened period of coronavirus spread starting in March. “The workers were not protected, there were no precautions, there was no distancing. The line continued to operate like normal.”
As of Thursday, there were 1,088 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 22 meat and poultry processing plants in the state. That number of reported confirmed cases has more than doubled since last week, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Riva worked on the line at the Case Farms chicken processing facility in Morganton in Burke County, a small city at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The company is one of the biggest employers in the city. This week, the county was listed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as one of the latest sites of a meat-processing plant outbreak.
For Riva, the job came with benefits including health care. But as the coronavirus pandemic rolled through the state, Riva became increasingly concerned about protections for herself and her coworkers. If she gets sick, she says, there is no one else to provide for her son.
"How would I protect my son if I continued to be there with the risk of contracting the virus?” said Riva, crying softly into the phone.
Riva continued to work the month of March despite her concerns. She says she was not alone in those fears — her coworkers also continued to work because of financial necessity. Riva finally decided to take her questions about plant employees’ health and safety to management. She wasn’t satisfied with the company’s response and decided to quit at the beginning of April. She’s now working for a non-profit advocacy organization that fights for workers’ rights.
Workers, often immigrants and vulnerable populations, continue to operate the lines at meat processing facilities across the state. Riva and other employees now find themselves in the midst of a political battle. Last week, President Donald Trump declared meat processing facilities to be “critical infrastructure,” a means for them to keep running and not disturb the food chain for the entire country.
But advocates like Riva are calling for the increased protection of current workers in the face of this economic pressure.
‘Shoulder To Shoulder’
Another employee currently working at Case Farms in Morganton says protections for workers have trickled in slowly. WUNC is not identifying her because of her fear of being fired for speaking out..
-Case Farms worker
She says personal protective equipment is now available for workers, including face masks, gloves, and plastic shields. But some of this equipment was only made available the last week of April and her biggest worry is how close workers are to one another.
“Everything is continuing the same as before. We don’t have distance between workers. We are working, as you say, shoulder to shoulder,” said the worker.
Case Farms did not agree to an interview, but in a statement outlined some of the changes they’ve made and said that the company’s coronavirus protection measures have been “reviewed by directors of local health departments.”
When reached Tuesday, Lisa Moore, the health education supervisor and public information officer for Burke County where the plant is based, said the county was not aware of these worker concerns. She says the county sent CDC COVID-19 guidance to the company and that they have been checking in periodically.
Since then, Moore says she’s heard from Case Farms that they are staggering lunch breaks for workers and working to install Plexiglass shields on the line between employees.
“They are making strides into taking care of those issues that we discussed,” said Moore on Thursday.
Within the past three days, the state health department has identified an outbreak of COVID-19 at a plant in Burke County, but has not disclosed exactly how many cases. Moore confirms she is only aware of one meat-processing facility in the county, Case Farms.
A Similar Vulnerable Community On Edge In Chatham County
Fear is a common feeling among workers in meat processing plants across the state. In the Piedmont region, Ilana Dubester knows this well. She heads El Vínculo Hispano, an advocacy organization that works to elevate the voices of the Hispanic community in the region.
“What we are hearing from families is that COVID has spread through the community quite widely,” says Dubester. “Meaning family members are getting [exposure] from folks at the plants, at the Mountaire processing plant.”
Nearly everyday, Dubester has been speaking with workers from that plant in Siler City to get a sense of their worries. She says Mountaire has passed out masks, face shields, and implemented plexiglass barriers, but she points out that a critical issue is how many staff at these plants are contract workers, hired by outside companies who are often not as transparent with workers rights.
“Employees that have reached out to us express a lot of concern for their temp worker colleagues because of the differential treatment,” she said. “And things that they are getting that their temp worker colleagues can't get.”
Those include health insurance, paid sick leave and hazard pay. Dubester and other advocates are calling for increased access to these benefits during the pandemic.
One contract worker who formerly worked at Mountaire Farms described a hostile and unsafe workplace environment. Maria says she left because she was afraid of getting sick and passing the virus along to her three children. WUNC agreed not to use her last name because she says she wants to return to work at Mountaire when she feels it is safe.
Officials with Mountaire did not respond to WUNC’s request for an interview.
Layton Long, the director of the Chatham County Health Department, where the Mountaire Farms plant is based, told WUNC that approximately half of the COVID-19 cases in the county are tied in some way to the county’s meat processing plants. As of Wednesday, the county has 412 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
At the end of April, a number of groups including community health center Piedmont Health, the Chatham County Health Department, and Mountaire Farms teamed up to operate a drive-thru testing site for plant employees and their families. So far, the drive-thru testing operation has been the biggest mass testing event for any meat processing facility in the state. Following the mass-testing, 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were linked to the site.
Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health, explains his organization felt a responsibility to help protect the health of these workers.
“The people who make the least amongst us have the least space around them,” said Toomey. “That's why this is happening to communities that have to work for a living and also are in close proximity to each other. It's our responsibility to get that safe distance for them either through distance of space with housing or distance of space for working situations and PPE.”
That responsibility is also a priority for Riva, as she begins to speak out on behalf of her community in Morganton.
“Because I know there are many people who need to know that they have rights,” she said. "Despite being immigrants, they still have rights.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story described Piedmont Health as a "community organization." The story has been updated to reflect Piedmont Health's role as a "community health center."