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The poultry industry in the Delmarva peninsula employs more than 20,000 workers. Of those, at least 2,215 have been infected with the coronavirus, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. At least 17 have died.
Virginia is poised to create the first pandemic workplace safety mandates in the country. But what protocols are currently in place to protect workers? And have Maryland and Delaware proposed anything similar?
We’ll hear from the lead attorney representing farm and immigrant workers in Virginia and from a Washington Post reporter covering the poultry industry in Delaware.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
Statement from Perdue
“At Perdue, our people always have and always will come first, and we will continue to do all we can to protect our colleagues.
Perdue responded swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 and we have been closely following and implementing current CDC guidance since the first reports of cases in the U.S. Even before public health officials provided guidance on workplace safety for meat and poultry companies, we instituted extensive incremental safety measures like additional sanitization, enforcement of social distancing, and temperature checks and mask wearing for everyone entering our buildings, and we added to these measures over time as we learned more and guidance from health experts evolved.
Despite the global disruptions caused by COVID-19, we have been able to continue safely running our operations. This is a reflection of the dedication of our associates, a sentiment you can glean from these videos.
For more information, you can visit our COVID-19 Response web page.”
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The poultry industry in the Delmarva Peninsula has been hit hard by the pandemic. Of the 20,000 workers employed at the farm, slaughterhouses and processing plants on the Eastern Shore, at least 2,215 have contracted the coronavirus, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. At least 17 people have died.
KOJO NNAMDIVirginia is poised to issue the first pandemic workplace safety mandates in the country, but what protocols are currently in place to protect vulnerable workers? And have Maryland and Delaware proposed anything similar? Joining us now is Jason Yarashes, the lead attorney and program coordinator for the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at the Legal Aid Justice Center. Jason, thank you for joining us.
JASON YARASHESThanks for having me on again, Kojo.
NNAMDIYes. As you said, again, because you joined us on the show back in May to talk about the rise in COVID cases at Virginia's poultry processing plants. Can you give us an update on the situation there?
YARASHESSure. Thanks so much. So much has happened between now and then. So, what we're talking about here is states, including Virginia, stepping in to fill the void due to a lack of federal regulations because -- federal regulations and standards. Because what the CDC really has is recommendations and guidelines. So what we're asking Virginia to do, and other states are doing, is asking them to create enforceable standards.
YARASHESAnd us, as well as a group of coalitions, sent letters and petitions to the governor and state agencies to ask for these enforceable standards. We utilized the power of social media and otherwise worked with coalitions on the ground to galvanize communities. We had well-attended, multiracial socially distanced car rallies both on the shore and Shenandoah Valley in front of plants to say, hey, look, the state has to step up here to fill the void.
YARASHESAnd, in the end, the governor, as well as the Department of Labor Industries, really we commend them. They stepped up to draft the standards and sent to the state safety and health codes board for the consideration. And they're currently in front of the board right now.
NNAMDIWhat specific protections have been put in place for those working in the poultry industry?
YARASHESSo, what we currently have now are merely recommendations and guidelines.
YARASHESBut, if passed, what the board would do would be able to create a series of enforceable standards related to the things that we're hearing about, required policies and procedures for employees who test positive, reporting requirements, social distancing, hand washing, sanitizing, training, protective equipment and, importantly, anti-retaliation provisions to really give workers that hook to be able to say, this is enforceable. We need to be able to be able to protect our rights during this emergent time.
NNAMDIJoining us is Michael Miller, local enterprise reporter for the Washington Post who has been covering this issue. Michael Miller, thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL MILLERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMichael, your reporting focuses on the Delaware poultry industry and the rise in coronavirus cases there. What did you find?
MILLERYeah, I mean, as Jason mentioned, we began to see outbreaks of the coronavirus at poultry plants and meatpacking plants, you know, really across the country starting in kind of March and picking up pace in April. And some of my colleagues at the Washington Post did a really tremendous job looking at what that looked like at the time. But I wanted to kind of get a sense, first of all, of the broad impact on the Delmarva Peninsula.
MILLERSo, not only in Delaware but also on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, just to get a sense of really, first of all, how many of these workers had gotten sick, how many of them had died. And then also to kind of tell their stories, because as you know, we know this was a bit of a crazy time, a lot of confusion about the virus.
MILLERAnd, you know, I wanted to make sure that their stories about what it was like to work at these plants, to get sick, to suffer from COVID, and then to be asked to return because they're critical infrastructure workers or employees, what that was like for them, what types of decisions they had to make to return to work at these plants where they felt like they got sick. So, that was my goal in reporting.
MILLERAnd what I found, really, was, first of all, that these plants -- which are a huge part of the economy on the Delmarva Peninsula that, again, Delaware, eastern shores of Maryland, Virginia -- the industry itself, the chicken industry there employs over 20,000 people. What I found is at least 2,215 of these poultry plant workers had gotten sick from coronavirus, and at least 17 of them had died.
MILLERAnd so in some of these small towns like Georgetown, Delaware, you really have quite a big impact where these communities of largely Central Americans, some Haitian workers, some African-American workers have really been extraordinarily affected by the pandemic and how it's played out there in those plants.
NNAMDIIn your story, you follow one worker, in particular. What can you tell us about him?
MILLERYeah, I mean, he is a Central American worker. I don't name him, because he was worried about getting fired for speaking out about his experience there. He works at the Perdue plant in Georgetown, Delaware. Again, Georgetown is a small town, about 7,000 people, and he had worked there for nearly 30 years. And despite working there for so long, his pay was roughly keeping track with inflation. So, I think it had reached $13 an hour, roughly, before the pandemic. That has gone up as Perdue has started to pay people $1 more an hour.
MILLERBut I really wanted to chronicle, again, kind of one person's experience and how scary and confusing this was for them. And so what happened is that he, in the beginning of April, just a few days after another Perdue plant had actually shut down because of coronavirus and employees testing positive there, he was at work at his plant there in Georgetown when he started to feel just, you know, horribly achy and sick.
MILLERAnd he finished his shift, and then he wanted to see if he could go in the next day, and he just couldn't. So, he called in sick, and he actually took a week of vacation, because a lot of these employees don't have sick pay. And he was at home trying to recover from what he didn't know was the coronavirus yet, and then he got so sick that he had to call 911. He couldn't breathe, and they rushed him to the hospital.
MILLERAnd so he spent a week in the hospital, and then another almost two months recovering from the virus, which we know can be really complicated and affect people in different ways. And he felt that he, you know, had to go back to work, because he had all these bills piling up, his mortgage, his hospital bill, which he said he had to pay about $5,000, at least. So, he felt like he had gotten sick at the plant, now he was being pressured kind of by the government, by the company, to go back to work. And then he had these economic pressures, as well. So, he was in this really difficult position where he was afraid to go back to work, but he felt he had to.
NNAMDIDid the company offer any kind of assistance at all?
MILLERWell, Perdue says that they have -- like other poultry plants and companies, they have stopped their practice of penalizing people from missing work. They also say that they have basically agreed to pay people as they recover from the coronavirus. But what I found, at least in his case, is that he hadn't been paid really at all, except for that week of vacation. So, he was out almost two months of pay.
MILLERAnd I know that I talked to employees at other plants working for other companies, and they largely told me the same story, that they had gotten sick. Some of them, you know, had nearly died. One that I write about did die from the coronavirus. And, you know, the time that they were sick, by and large, they didn't get paid at all.
NNAMDIFor this program, we reached out to three major poultry companies operating in our region, Perdue, Mountaire and Tyson. Tyson did not respond. Mountaire referred us to its website. Perdue declined to make someone available for today's show, but did offer us a statement, which I'll read, in part.
NNAMDI“At Perdue, our people have and always will come first. And we will continue to do all we can to protect our colleagues. Perdue responded swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 and we have been closely following and implementing current CDC guidance since the first reports of cases in the U.S. Even before public health officials provided guidance on workplace safety for meat and poultry companies, we instituted extensive incremental safety measures like additional sanitization, enforcement of social distancing, temperature checks and mask wearing for everyone entering our buildings. And we added to these measures overtime as we learned more and more guidance from health experts involved.”
NNAMDIYou can find the full statement from Perdue on our website, kojoshow.org. But Michael, even though Perdue was the only company that provided us a statement, the poultry workers that you've talked to seem to suggest that these things are not necessarily happening for them.
MILLERRight. And so, really, the question is, when? When did companies like Perdue implement these safety measures? And that's the question that I asked them very specifically several times. When did they put in plastic barriers along the poultry lines in Georgetown? When did they do that in other plants? When did they start providing masks? When did they provide hand sanitation stations?
MILLERSo, you know, these things that Jason mentioned, these guidelines, these recommendations from the CDC, they were eventually put into place, as far as I know, at the plants in Delaware. That's what state health officials tell me. But the question is, when exactly did that go into effect? Because, as we know, looking at other ways that the pandemic has played out, you know, a matter of days or weeks? That can mean a lot of people getting infected and possibly dying.
NNAMDIHere is Mike in Annapolis, Maryland. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHey, yeah, I'm not an essential employee, but I was forced to go back to work at one of the casinos, the big three casinos in Maryland. And it's kind of scary. I mean, we've already had somebody get quarantined. We don't know if he's positive yet, but he may have been exposed. They're just real closed-mouth about, you know, who -- you know, we just haven't heard anything from the company. And all the executives, you know, they used to be all over the place. Now they're just laying low in their bunkers.
NNAMDIWhat kind of PPP protection have you been offered, and what kind of social distancing are you practicing at the casino? What do you do there?
MIKEI deal cards. That's limited. We have six at the tape, normally. We have four now. They're all divide by Plexiglas. You know, they're -- people have to stand six feet back of the tables, even if they're together, you know, because we can't -- we don't know if they are. So, you know, we're told to -- but, you know, some of the floors enforce it, some of them don't.
MIKEYou know, most of the people are very compliant with the masks, though. You know, from what I've been reading in other places, so that's been an issue. But, you know, everybody wears the mask. They don't always wear it right. The put it down with their nose sticking out, and that kind of junk, but...
NNAMDIYeah, I've noticed that a lot. But thank you very much for sharing your story with us, Mike. Back to you, Jason. What can you tell us about the poultry industry in the Delmarva Peninsula and the people who work there?
YARASHESYes. Thanks so much to the caller for stressing the fact that this goes across all industries. We're focused on poultry today, but really, this is affecting everybody all around. And we can speak to three general things from a historical perspective, right. And for poultry, we're talking about an industry that has a history of bad workplace protections, high rates of injuries and deaths and poor oversight.
YARASHESThen we move into the COVID era. What we're hearing from industries is that they want the credit for responding quickly, but really, we would pause that this was really a poor reactionary initial response. And until the public media attention and until workers bravely started speaking out did they start implementing some of these procedures. While at the same time sometimes victim blaming with folks in the community.
YARASHESAnd now, what we're seeing at least in Virginia, is the poultry industry leading the charge to publicly fight out against these regulations. So, in my estimation, Virginia employers and poultry employers who are saying that they're doing the right thing actually should, like workers are, support these standards. If another employer is not complying and, as a result, is gaining competitive advantage, then they should be held responsible. And these enforceable standards make that possible.
NNAMDIWould you agree with Michael, that many of these workers have been afraid to speak up and voice their concerns?
YARASHESAbsolutely. I mean, especially in rural areas like we're talking about, during a pandemic. We have folks that are very afraid against retaliation, right now and historically. And, as Michael noted, some things have been implemented. But just -- I mean, along with our community organizers and community leaders, I've surveyed some folks in the community over the last couple weeks. And we're still hearing, as Michael noted, a lack of sufficient paid leave, a lack of information provided.
YARASHESSure, there are masks, but sometimes there's no enforcement. Folks use them, others don't. And that really there's no social distancing, in some instances, because what the guidelines say a lot of time is if feasible or if practicable. If it's not enforceable, then there's a chance that the employers will not follow them.
NNAMDIHere now is Khaldun in Baltimore, Maryland. Khaldun, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KHALDUNYes. Thank you for having me on this conversation. So, as I was saying, I'm a guy who thinks that we should support our workers, make sure they're safe, they are paid well, and also that they have their medical coverage. I mean, these businesses, we want to keep the economy going. We want to make sure that it's a strong economy that we have for the country. But at the same time, we shouldn't kill the people.
KHALDUNThese are the people that we're losing on a daily basis. So, yeah, this is my point of view, that we need to make sure -- like, I hear about this guy from Central America and having $13 pay after 30 years of service. This is kind of -- it feels to me -- especially for a guy who just moved to the states four years ago, and I have a background in human resources, it sounds really rough.
KHALDUNAnd, yeah, I feel it's unfair, that the pay is bad, and also for the guy to be out of work for weeks, not having medical coverage or even to be responsible to his bills. It's kind of you putting their life to make your business keep on going. It's your responsibility to take care of them.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Jason, what percentage of the poultry industry workforce is undocumented?
YARASHESI couldn't give you specific numbers, Kojo. What I can say is that it's a fairly significant portion. There's undocumented and under-documented workers. There's really a variety of folks across the population, a very diverse, multiracial population, and all of which that are in very vulnerable circumstances, especially working in rural areas, where there's a dearth of other employment options available. So, really, that just speaks more to the vulnerability of the workers, especially when retaliation is threatened, if they speak up about noncompliance with mere guidelines.
NNAMDIMichael, you wrote about one woman who holed up in her bathroom for two weeks in order to prevent the virus from spreading to her family. What can you tell us about her experience?
MILLERYeah, I mean, she was just one of several really heartbreaking stories that I heard while reporting this. And I guess just to start, you know, some local officials kind of tried to almost shift at least part of the blame onto the workers by saying that they lived in cramped conditions or that they commuted to work with other people, and that was part of the reason why so many poultry plant workers got sick.
MILLERAnd while it is true that some of the people I spoke to did, you know, live with many other relatives in relatively small houses, again and again, I heard the kind of great length that they went to to prevent community spread, to prevent their families from getting sick. And so the story of that one woman that you mentioned was really powerful.
MILLERI mean, so she got sick working at a poultry plant on the Delmarva Peninsula. And she lived with seven relatives in her house, including a ten-month-old baby. And she didn't have anywhere to quarantine. I mean, some of us are lucky enough to have, you know, rooms or even extra houses where we can quarantine to make sure that we're safe and that our family members are safe. But she didn't. All she had was a windowless bathroom.
MILLERAnd so this is the only place that she could -- at least in her mind -- quarantine. And so her husband bought her a foam mat, and she slept on the floor in the bathroom for two weeks. And her family passed her food through the crack in the door, and she would pass out the trash. And, you know, she said that the worst part of it was that despite all of that, her ten-month-old baby actually got sick. And so all of that effort that she went to, in her mind, was kind of for not.
MILLERSo, you know, again and again, I heard these really wrenching stories from the workers themselves. And I think it's important that we kind of know what the human cost of keeping an industry open is, especially as we face this question again with the virus and the pandemic continuing to rage across the country. You know, how much do we stay open? How much of the economy do we keep open, and what is the human cost of that?
NNAMDIWas that woman able to recover?
MILLERShe did. She did. She eventually recovered. And because she hadn't been paid, again, in I think it was over a month, maybe five, six weeks, she hadn't gotten paid because, you know, it's not simply snap your fingers and recover in seven days. This takes a long time for people. When she finally recovered after not getting paid for that period, she had to go back to work. And so that's what she did. She went back to the plant where she believed she got sick.
MILLERAnd her husband actually lost his job during the pandemic, as many people have. And when it came time for him to get a job, he ended up working at a poultry plant, because that was the only place that was open, the only place that was hiring. So, you get a sense of the kind of economic pull and power that these plants have, where they're basically the only industry in town in some parts of the country. And the responsibility that they have to their workers to, you know, keep them healthy, keep them safe.
NNAMDIHere is Sue, in Virginia. Sue, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUEThank you. Thank you for having this discussion. I live here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and I just wanted to point out that this is wonderful reporting, and I'm glad that it's shining a light on this. This is not an issue that is just confined to the pandemic. The working conditions and the low pay and low benefits that these workers have has been an ongoing problem.
SUEI have one guy who does some landscaping for me, and his wife worked at one of the plants. And when she got pregnant, had to stop a few weeks before she was due, she lost her insurance. So, they had no way of paying the hospital for the delivery. And she had worked at the plant for two years, so she should've -- you know, in any universe that you and I know about, she would've had, you know, benefits, and they would've carried through her pregnancy.
SUESo, you know, these are the kinds of conditions that these people are living with every day. And, of course, as, you know, they alluded to, there's a lot of fear in the workers. Some of them, it's related to immigration. Some of it is just related to a lot of other issues going on. But, you know, this is an ongoing issue that needs a big light shone on it to try to address.
NNAMDISue, thank you very much for your call. Jason, I'd like to talk briefly more about the new safety mandates proposed in Virginia. How would they protect workers from the coronavirus?
YARASHESSo, there are several measures that will be put in. Again, the key is about enforceability, here. And this is all science-backed data that's been coming out. They would set actual requirements and standards over and above what the CDC is recommending, to say there's required policies for folks who test positive for information to workers. Because workers continue to report a lack of information that's given to them about what's going on in the workplace and poultry on the lines.
YARASHESSo, there's specific reporting requirements. There would be required social distancing, required hand washing, disinfecting, training, personal protective equipment. So, really give folks the ability to come out and say, this is not happening at this plant. This is not happening in this workplace. And we continue to hear these things. And that way, as an advocate and as a worker, we can make good recommendations to be able to say, hey, you have the ability to go and make this complaint, and there would be a legal remedy to be able to do so.
NNAMDIThe Virginia governor's office has said that these protocols were necessary because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not doing its job. What do you think?
YARASHESI would say that there is a void in federal law, and that's exactly why we're happy that the governor and the Occupational Health and Safety folks and the State Department stepped up. And we will continue to say is that there has to be a requirement that any CDC guidance that employers claim to comply with, that there has to be an equivalent or greater protection as far as the OSHA standard.
NNAMDIMichael, we only have about a minute left, but the Sussex County administrator compared the poultry industry in the Delmarva Peninsula to the automobile industry in Detroit. Would you say that's an accurate comparison?
MILLERI mean, I think it captures the essence of the importance of this industry to that part of the country. I mean, really, I think the same administrator Todd Lawson said that you have -- in the peninsula, you have kind of two industries. You've got tourism, so the beaches along the Eastern Shore, and then you've got agriculture. And that's primarily the chicken industry. So, it's a huge part of the economy there.
MILLERAnd that's why this pandemic, in the way that it has affected these poultry plants, is such a big deal. Because it ripples through, not only the workforces, the 1,000-plus people who work in some of these factories, but then their families, their communities. And so that's why it's such an important issue. And, you know, we're potentially looking at a second wave down the road. And so I think we need to figure out kind of what's going on and ways to address it now before we get there.
NNAMDIMichael Miller, Jason Yarashes, thank you both for joining us. This segment on the plight of poultry workers during the pandemic was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our conversation about police reform with Kathy Patterson was produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, in early May, with the city in a state of emergency, D.C. banned evictions and froze rent increases. But now with that state of emergency set to expire at the end of July, thousands of Washingtonians who lost their jobs will only have 60 days to pay their rent, or they could face eviction. We dive into tenants' rights in the Washington region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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