Experts believe that outbreaks of coronavirus in Virginia's peninsula are due to conditions within meat processing plants.

Experts believe that outbreaks of coronavirus in Virginia's peninsula are due to conditions within meat processing plants.

Virginia has been hit hard from this pandemic, with over 20,000 cases and over 700 deaths. Accomack County has the second-highest rate of cases in the state. What’s going on in Virginia’s peninsula? Experts believe its COVID-19 spike is fueled by its poultry processing facilities.

Across the country, meatpacking and poultry processing facilities have become hotspots for coronavirus. In these plants, workers work in close quarters, making it nearly impossible to implement social distancing. To make matters worse, many workers haven’t had access to personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job.

We’ll discuss the working conditions in these poultry processing centers in Virginia, and what companies and health departments are doing to protect their workers and residents from the virus.

Produced by Richard Cunningham

Guests

  • Carol Vaughn Reporter, The Eastern Shore Post; @cvvaughnESN
  • Jason Yarashes Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator, Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice Center; @LegalAidJustice

Transcript

  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5 where I'm broadcasting from home. So welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll discuss how undocumented people in this region are faring in the midst of the pandemic. But first there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 cases at meat and poultry processing facilities across the country. In these facilities, employees work in close quarters making it nearly impossible to implement social distancing measures. And workers at many plants report that they have not had access to protective equipment or PPE on the job.

  • 12:00:38

    KOJO NNAMDIPoultry workers in Maryland and Virginia have not been immune. Communities on Virginia's eastern shore where poultry processing plants are one of the main employers have been hit especially hard. In fact, Accomack County has the second highest rate of coronavirus cases within the Commonwealth despite only having a population of approximately 32,000. Coronavirus cases are increasing at such a sharp rate in the county that local officials are concerned about the single hospital in the area soon being overwhelmed. Joining me to discuss this is Carol Vaughn, who is a Reporter for The Eastern Shore Post. Carol Vaughn, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:01:20

    CAROL VAUGHNThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:21

    NNAMDICarol, when did you first hear of COVID-19 cases in poultry processing facilities in Virginia?

  • 12:01:28

    VAUGHNWell, it started a couple of weeks ago. I can tell you on April 22 there was only 52 total cases in Accomack County. And today we are at, oh goodness, as of today we are at 463.

  • 12:01:50

    NNAMDIWow.

  • 12:01:52

    VAUGHNSo it was about two weeks ago.

  • 12:01:54

    NNAMDIHow many of those cases have been connected to poultry plants?

  • 12:01:59

    VAUGHNWell, that's been a little difficult to get at. On Monday our governor said around 260. I think those numbers are probably going up, because of the rights to privacy corporations are, you know, considered people in that sense. So they don't necessarily give us specific numbers. Right now as of today we have 379 cases that are associated with outbreak in our health district. Outbreaks are anywhere that has two or more, and this poultry plant are two of those outbreaks. And probably two of the larger ones.

  • 12:02:39

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Jason Yarashes, Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator with the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice Center. Jason, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:51

    JASON YARASHESGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you so much to you and WAMU for having us on.

  • 12:02:56

    NNAMDIJason, for people who are not familiar with the poultry farming industry in the region, give us a brief summary. How many plants are there in Virginia and where are they primary located?

  • 12:03:08

    YARASHESSo we're looking at two primary areas of the state. As Carol noted there's two big plants out in Accomack County. As well as a significant amount of plants our in the Harrisonburg Shenandoah area where we have 8 to 10 plants out there as well. In the Eastern Shore area numbers are at about 3,000 or more workers there. And in the Shenandoah area we have more than 10,000 workers working in that area.

  • 12:03:33

    NNAMDIWe reached out to both Purdue and Tyson foods both of which have plants on the Eastern Shore in Virginia. We asked for statements. Purdue did not provide a response. However, Tyson Foods did provide a statement. Due to its length I'll only read an excerpt. It says quoting here, "Our workplace safety efforts are significant and strictly enforced. We're implementing social distancing in our plants based on CDC and industry guidance such as increasing the distance between workers on the production floor and installing work station dividers and barriers in our breakrooms.

  • 12:04:07

    NNAMDIOur plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety. And we have significantly stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas to protect our team members. As an added precaution we may sometimes suspend a day of production to complete an additional deep clean the facilities. In addition we have been providing our team members with testing this week in Temperanceville."

  • 12:04:36

    NNAMDIThat statement coming from Tyson Foods. Jason Yarashes, what have you been hearing from workers? What kinds of conditions are they working under?

  • 12:04:46

    YARASHESSo I'll get to that. Take a step back briefly. We have poultry plants have sort of been notoriously closed off and secret about plant conditions and worker protections. And in the meantime we have folks now being asked to come in to keep the food supply chain alive. And so it's an industry where we sort of have high fears of retaliation based on, you know, concerns about immigration. But based on the fact that as we've noted a lot of these plants are in rural areas, so, you know, if you lose your job there's going to be a lack of access to other jobs. Particularly during the COVID era we're seeing lots of places close down and lack of access.

  • 12:05:26

    YARASHESSo that just giving that fact that it's very difficult to speak out. So some of the things that we have heard and are continuing to hear--I sort of, in preparation for this, went through a couple of recent comments that we've heard from workers. And this not specific to those plants, but things that we're hearing across the state.

  • 12:05:43

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:05:44

    YARASHESI mean, obviously, we're being told to follow the CDC recommendations at the plants, but it's worth noting that none of these are enforceable regulations. And that's one of the things that we've been asking the governor and agencies as well as on the federal level, hey, if you want folks to be in a good position to be able to speak out, you have to give them the voice to be able to do so. Because things that we're still hearing in plants are, you know, folks not being paid leave for time off, which sadly relates to fact that the federal act that was passed, the Families First Act, which gives paid leave to folks that want to take time off to care for themselves or others sadly exempts employers that are over 500, which if all if not none--excuse me, all if not most of the plants in Virginia and across the country.

  • 12:06:30

    YARASHESWe've heard things like, you know, things that seem good on the surface, but may be problematic going forward. Take for instance they'll say, we're going to give you a bonus of, you know, $100 on the frontend, and then in order to get the second half of the bonus you have to stay and work through the end of May, which is problematic, because then folks are going to be in a position especially when they're trying to support their families of waiting and potentially being sick or being symptomatic and going in. And, you know, foregoing those concerns for the purpose of getting pay.

  • 12:07:02

    YARASHESWe have folks saying that they feel like the company is hiding things. Infection rates are high, but they're not being told what's going on in the plant. We've heard that masks are too thick or too thin or they're not being provided with frequency. They're concerned about there not being mandatory testing, not disinfecting tables, getting docked for missing work. So problems that are already prolific during a none-COVID times, but are sort of exacerbated during this timeframe.

  • 12:07:28

    NNAMDIYou work for Legal Aid Justice Center, which is advocating on behalf of poultry workers. What are you and the plant workers that you are working with advocating for? What do they need right now?

  • 12:07:42

    YARASHESSo we're asking both state agencies, the governors and as well as with national advocates on the, you know, federal level to say, look, what we need here is a variety of things. We need enforceable regulations. We need enforced social distancing, enforced PPE, face masks as well as plastic face shields. All these things required to be sure that folks, who are in a position to speak out about it and it doesn't happen then they have an ability to take a legal avenue to speak out for themselves.

  • 12:08:10

    YARASHESHand sanitizing, hand washing, gloves, regular disinfection, modification to workers when something is happening on their line as well as, you know, anti-retaliation and whistleblower protections. We're also asking the state to do an expansion of the federal Families First Act to cover employees or employers that are over 500. So if these workers are able to get paid leave. We're also asking, you know, in response to letters that we sent, you know, partly in response to that there was a press conference held by Governor Northam.

  • 12:08:43

    YARASHESAnd the CDC was deployed to help assist with what's going on in the eastern shore, which is excellent. However, we have, you know, 8 to 10 plants in the Harrisonburg and Shenandoah Valley area where there's more than 10,000 workers there. And there's similar concerns as there are in Accomack County of very high rates of COVID infections that we can tie back to the plants. So that's among the things that we're asking folks. Essentially protect the workers that are keeping the food supply chain alive.

  • 12:09:15

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the coronavirus spikes in poultry processing in general, but in particular in Virginia with Jason Yarashes. He is the Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator with the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice. And Carol Vaughn, a Reporter at The Eastern Shore Post in Virginia. Here is Steve in Potomac. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:39

    STEVEHi, Kojo. This is a great follow-up to your show yesterday featuring John Barry where he said the two most important elements to addressing pandemic are the truth and social distancing. I grew up in the meat packing industry in Chicago. We had a USDA government inspector on our plant every day. It wasn't a huge plant, but we had hundreds of workers. And it seems likely that if we had the leadership at the top at our presidency, for example, you would actually require USDA to have parallel health requirements to inspect to ensure the health and safety of workers.

  • 12:10:21

    STEVEIt's that simple. But when we don't have the leadership that we need, even if we have the daily inspectors in the plants then we're not going to be able to protect the workers. And looks what's happening? We're fighting amongst ourselves on a radio show as to what the standards ought to be. So I think we need to require that our national leadership.

  • 12:10:43

    NNAMDIJason Yarashes, I'd like you to respond to that in the minute or so we have left. And that as he said our guest yesterday said the two things you need are truth and social distancing. How do you respond?

  • 12:10:57

    YARASHESThanks so much. It's an excellent point. Hit on a lot of great points there. One of them being make requirements. Folks have to be required to do so, and as he noted, expand on that. You know, we've seen OSHA not increase in ranks during the Trump administration, but rather be depleted. It puts them in a position where, you know, they're not able to do investigations in the same way they were in the past, which for folks that already have difficulty speaking out for fears of retaliation and otherwise you essentially have a completely depleted administration, a federal administration and or state agencies to do the same.

  • 12:11:33

    YARASHESSo it's tricky, difficult. We need to get folks to be able to speak out and to get enforceable regulations on the books to protect not just the individuals and the plants, but the broader public health in these communities and elsewhere across the nation.

  • 12:11:48

    NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on coronavirus spikes in poultry processing with Jason Yarashes as Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator with the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice. And Carol Vaughn, a Reporter at The Eastern Shore. Carol Vaughn, we got a tweet from Celia who said, "My sister lives in Accomack and is going through chemotherapy. What is being done to help residents who may be vulnerable in that area? Are there ways that other Virginians can help?" Carol.

  • 12:12:38

    VAUGHNWell, I think -- I feel sorry for her. Staying home and keeping the distance is the same as anywhere. But the concern I had expressed to me by quite a few of these poultry workers many of whom called, you know, and didn't want to give their names, but did call us. And they concerned about household members that have a similar situation or maybe have diabetes, maybe have heart disease or cancer and that's one of the major concerns that we heard from the workers themselves was not only for themselves, but for people in their households.

  • 12:13:19

    NNAMDICarol Vaughn, what is the risk of keeping these processing facilities open? How dangerous can this situation become?

  • 12:13:28

    VAUGHNI'm not a scientist. I'm not an expert. So we are waiting for the CDC reports. They did visit both plants this last week. And their official report is not ready yet. But when it is we will share it. It's what the Perdue spokesperson told me. The workers -- they had a rally last week. And some of their supporters -- in fact, I saw Jason there. What all of them were asking for was a 14 day closing. I don't believe that's going to happen. I don't think that's going to happen. I guess the risk and I am not a gambling person. But you are going to see these numbers go up, I'm very willing to predict that. They have tested at the plants this week. They are doing testing of all the employees is what we're told. So that's over 3,000 people.

  • 12:14:28

    VAUGHNAnd then we also have the National Guard coming in Friday and Saturday at our local community college to do a drive thru clinic. And we're told they have up to 1500 tests. So if you, you know, we're going to have 4500 test results coming. So you can imagine what that might do to our numbers. So that will be interesting.

  • 12:14:53

    NNAMDIWell, you say that they were -- the demonstrators were asking for 14 day closures. Have there been any closures on the Eastern Shore at all?

  • 12:15:04

    VAUGHNTo my knowledge, Tyson closed down last Friday and did a deep cleaning for Friday, Saturday, Sunday. That is all that we know of.

  • 12:15:20

    NNAMDICarol, are there concerns about closures affecting the region's meat supply?

  • 12:15:27

    VAUGHNI suppose that that would be the case, but that's not I don't hear about that from local residents. Local residents are more concerned for their, you know, their fellow Accomack residents and North Hampton, our neighboring county and even up in Maryland. Some of the workers live there they're more concerned about their health. And then about the possibility of it -- of community spread, because all of these folks, that's a large number of people to be out. They have to go to the store sometimes, you know.

  • 12:16:00

    VAUGHNYou know of someone. If you don't know a worker directly, you know of them. Everything here is very close knit. So I think they're more concerned for the health and well-being. Another thing that's pretty disturbing is of the 612 cases that we have reported right now -- like I said those numbers are going to go up, 379 are African American. And five of our 10 deaths are African American, and 21 of 29 that are hospitalized. So that's kind of startling statistics.

  • 12:16:39

    NNAMDIThose numbers are obviously disproportionate to the African American population there. But what have you heard from Governor Northam's office? What has he done to combat the spread of coronavirus in these facilities?

  • 12:16:51

    VAUGHNWell, you know, he's from here. So he's very aware of how things are here. He and the Delaware governor and the Maryland governor did get together and made an appeal. And we did get the CDC teams sent to all three parts of the Delmarva Peninsula. I think because of that. And just on Wednesday the State Health Commissioner, Dr. Oliver, said that they have talked with the plant management here about ensuring paid sick leaves. So I did hear that.

  • 12:17:30

    VAUGHNAnd the other bit of news is that he said Wednesday was that the plants have arranged for hotel space for workers, who need to be quarantined, because that's a big concern. That was the first we had heard of that because people live in close quarters with lots of family members multi-generation and that's one of the main concerns that I've heard the workers talking about. How do I not give this to my family?

  • 12:17:57

    NNAMDIWhat have you been hearing from health departments in the region?

  • 12:18:01

    VAUGHNWell, the health department is working with the CDC team and the state department of health. They've been very good about keeping us informed as much as they can. Like I said, they are restricted by this law about privacy of corporations. So they say it's an outbreak. They can't say where it is per say. But the plants have started to tell us. I do think that that was another one of the concerns that workers had. They didn't know -- you know, they only heard secondhand that a guy that was working their line had tested positive and so forth. So how that is going forward after this mass testing we shall see next week.

  • 12:18:44

    NNAMDIJason Yarashes, is it wise to keep these plants and farms open at this time?

  • 12:18:51

    YARASHESYou know, we're not blind to the fact that, you know, we got to keep the food supply chain alive. You know, this is both for poultry, for farm workers, for farms across Virginia both big and small. But the opposite side of that -- and if there's one good thing, which is not much that has come out of COVID is that folks that are put in difficult positions in those essential workers of the critical infrastructure are being treated, you know, not well. So they're actually speaking out, which is great in things that we haven't seen before.

  • 12:19:21

    YARASHESAnd they're being put in this position where they're left with this really sort of undesirable Sophie's Choice of, you know, they either have a high risk of getting sick by going in, which means they can feed their kids or they don't feed their kids and have a higher chance of not getting sick. So when we think about the federal law that was passed, Families First, for my part I would not say that's putting families first particularly in the poultry industry when we're really looking at an emergency within an emergency. As we've done, we've cited the numbers, we've cited the stories.

  • 12:19:51

    YARASHESAnd particularly for big companies like the plants out on the shore and the plants out in Harrisonburg, which are not small places, for the most of them are billion dollar companies that are built on the backs and the hard work of an endangerous industry of workers. They deserve to be protected. And I'm glad that this is highlighting this and hopefully both the plants and the government take affirmative measures to do so.

  • 12:20:15

    NNAMDICarol Vaughn, what have you seen or heard about changes that these facilities are making to hamper the spread of coronavirus?

  • 12:20:24

    VAUGHNWell, those folks have told us that list that you read from Tyson a while ago. That's pretty much what we've got. And that they're using infrared thermometers to check employees as they enter each day now and having face coverings used. Having the dividers when you're on the line and you can't practice social distancing. Having like plastic dividers. And they sent us some pictures of all that. So that's what, you know, that's what they've been doing, extra cleaning, pretty much the list that you had.

  • 12:20:56

    VAUGHNDr. Oliver, the State Health Commissioner said that they want them to do more altering and staggering of break times. That kind of thing. And I think a big big part of it is we have to see what results from this request to have them ensured paid sick leave. The state has talked to the plant management about that. So we'll be seeing what the follow-up is on that.

  • 12:21:28

    NNAMDICarol Vaughn is a Reporter at The Eastern Shore Post. Carol Vaughn, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:21:33

    VAUGHNYou're welcome. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIJason Yarashes is the Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator with the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice Center. Jason, in 20 seconds of less many workers in these meat processing facilities are of immigrant communities. What particular struggles are these workers facing at this time?

  • 12:21:53

    YARASHESYou know, high fears of retaliation and sadly, you know, what we're seeing also is to certain extents workers actually being blamed for spreading illness.

  • 12:22:04

    NNAMDIOkay. Good to take a -- Jason, thank you so much for joining us. We're out of time in this segment. Got to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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