For 25 years, Ilana Dubester’s North Carolina organization El Vínculo Hispano has served rural Latinx communities in Chatham, Alamance, Randolph, and Lee counties. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfurl across the state, she heard firsthand from immigrant workers that outbreaks were forming in rural Central North Carolina’s many poultry processing plants run by companies like Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson, and Mountaire Farms. While Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson have refused to release numbers to the public concerning the outbreak in their facilities, Mountaire Farms initially underreported the outbreak before going totally silent last week when testing at the plant carried out by the National Guard revealed 74 new cases.
A Prism series published Friday as part of International Workers’ Day revealed the human cost when companies are empowered to evade responsibility during a public health crisis. In part three of this series, Dubester talks to Prism about the lack of transparency impacting her community, her fundraiser for Chatham County workers, and the message being sent to “essential” workers by President Donald Trump and companies like Mountaire. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tina Vasquez: Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride aren’t releasing numbers and now Mountaire Farms has stopped talking to the media. What are you hearing from these companies, and are you troubled by this lack of transparency during a public health crisis?
Ilana Dubester: They have stopped talking to me as well. I was really glad to see in the newspapers that Piedmont Health released information about Mountaire after the testing was carried out last week, otherwise we would have no idea of any recent numbers. But even the numbers we do have don’t give us much sense of things. They tested 356 people [at Mountaire], that includes workers and family members. We don’t know how many of which, and it was only people experiencing symptoms. There are so many people I’ve heard from in the community who are being declined testing and we just don’t know the real number of people who are positive.
Vasquez: Declining to test people without symptoms seems like a very bad strategy, given that we know asymptomatic people are spreading the disease at a rapid pace and a recent study even found that people are most infectious right before they start to show any symptoms.
Dubester: It’s clear that we need mass testing, but I don’t know if there are plans to continue large scale testing [in Central North Carolina]. I know workers are very frustrated. Several have talked to me about how frustrated they feel about the lack of information and transparency from Mountaire, but also what they feel is a lack of information about the real numbers. They are risking their lives and they want to know how widespread this issue is at their workplace and in their community. That seems very basic.
Vasquez: You told me about the contract worker who received a bill for $500 after being tested for the coronavirus at Chatham Hospital, part of the University of North Carolina Health Care System. Chatham Hospital does charge some people for COVID-19 testing. Trump has said all testing is free and that everyone can get tested, but you’re hearing from workers who can’t get tested and not only that, but they’ve been charged. Is it your sense that all of this conflicting information is confusing people in the community?
Dubester: Of course, and not just in the community. There is conflicting information nationwide. I think a lot of people are confused about how testing works and who can get it. The contract workers at Mountaire and other places are uninsured people. If they can’t afford the test, what happens if they get sick? All of this really brings to light in an even more glaring way that access to health care is fundamental for everybody’s health and safety. Nationwide, we have millions of uninsured Americans and non-citizens who are not going to risk getting a bill for a test or a hospital stay.
Vasquez: In speaking to Mountaire workers, it’s also clear that the lack of transparency from the company and the mistrust of numbers publicly available leaves room for rumors to circulate about how widespread the outbreak is. Alternatively, when companies like Mountaire underreport, it can give workers a false sense of security going into work each day.
Dubester: The lack of transparency is very dangerous, and so is the misinformation. A couple of weeks ago when I spoke to [Mountaire North Carolina community relations manager] Mark Reif, he told me Mountaire was performing contact tracing inside the plants. He said they were letting all of their workers know if they were in the same shift or department as somebody that tested positive. Workers like Maria say that’s not happening at all. She asked a supervisor if the people absent in her department were sick with the virus and she was told they couldn’t reveal that information. It just adds to this overwhelming sense of fear because you don’t know if your co-workers are absent because they’re sick or scared. Plus, how do you really do that kind of tracing in a facility as big as Mountaire? There are so many people working there, you don’t know everyone you work with and you share common areas like the cafeteria, bathrooms, the parking lot, corridors, you name it. You’d have to do contact tracing for everyone and that’s something they’re obviously not willing to do. They won’t even tell people they worked on the same shift on the same line as someone who got sick. Of course rumors fly in this environment because no one knows who is sick. The assumption is that everyone is sick.
Vasquez: People are starting to develop an understanding of what the situation is nationwide because there is so much reporting about the huge numbers of meatpacking workers testing positive and stories about workers who have died. But this is happening in all of our backyards, affecting people in our communities, and there is so much we don’t know.
Dubester: We don’t have an accurate snapshot, especially if we’re not testing everybody. That’s part of the reason I thought Trump’s executive order was so irresponsible. You want to force people to work, to take the risk of getting the virus, without forcing the companies to be responsible and provide workers with the basic knowledge they need about whether they’ve been exposed.
Vasquez: The pandemic is certainly highlighting so many issues that impact workers. Do you think this lack of transparency and information around COVID-19 is a workers’ rights issue?
Dubester: Absolutely, and this is about more than information. It’s about workplace protections and safety in the workplace. It’s about access to testing and access to health care, for that matter.
Vasquez: El Vínculo Hispano has partnered up with other local organizations to create the Chatham Solidarity Fund to support workers in the area. Can you tell me more about it?
Dubester: We’re working with six other local nonprofits to raise funds for families who have lost income due to COVID-19 and who don’t have access to stimulus checks or unemployment benefits. So these are people who have been financially impacted because they are out of work, had their hours reduced, or because they got sick. These are workers who have been deemed essential and they’ve worked really hard for this country and they’ve paid taxes, they’ve paid into Social Security, they’ve contributed tremendously to the economy, but they don’t have any help. Don’t get me wrong—we want to help everyone. Contributing to the economy isn’t the only way to be deserving of dignity, but it’s important to point those things out [for people who don’t understand]. The purpose of the funds we raise is to help the most vulnerable families in Chatham County. We are hoping to raise $50,000. I don’t know if we will, but we have already raised over [$25,000]. Families can apply for the funds online and we will distribute the funds in June. Right now, someone has offered to match donations up to $5,000 by May 6. The overall intention isn’t to help 300 families with $200. We are hoping to give families in need a more significant check, beyond a few hundred dollars that won’t get them very far. Right now families in our community have immediate and significant needs; they need food, they need to pay their bills, they need shelter. We want to help as much as we can.
Vasquez: Speaking of contributions, in reporting on Mountaire in Central North Carolina, I learned that Mountaire Farms was President Trump’s fifth-largest donor in the 2016 election and that Ronald Cameron, CEO of Mountaire, personally gave Trump $2 million during the 2016 election. Mountaire and other plants largely rely on immigrant labor and specifically, labor from undocumented workers. Do you think working conditions would be different if the population of their workforce was different?
Dubester: I have so many angry feelings about this. This is the definition of speaking out of both sides of your mouth, right? These are somehow essential workers and dispensable workers at the same time. They can’t get free testing without insurance, they’re not getting stimulus checks, they aren’t given health insurance—even if they wanted to pay out of pocket they couldn’t, yet they’ve been ordered by the president and the people who gave him money to keep on working to feed Americans. Plus, they’re not even going to tell us how many of their workers are infected? How many people in our community are sick? The message is basically: Cut up our chicken and pork, feed America, and shut up.
Vasquez: This is the message a lot of workers are hearing right now.
Dubester: Yes, all kinds of workers. I’m hearing about outbreaks in farmworker communities and camps too. They are people forced to live in cramped quarters, they don’t have access to [sanitation] items, they aren’t being provided with masks, and they’re getting sick. This is how we treat our ‘essential workers.’ Essential and dispensable. Just shut up and go to work. Shut up and pick our vegetables. Shut up and cut up our chicken—and don’t complain about it because you should be grateful to have a job, even if it means risking your life and risking your family’s life. It’s appalling, and that is largely the attitude toward these workers in the United States. It’s the marginalization of already marginalized communities of color. We treat them like machines and not like human beings.
This is part three of Prism’s May Day mini-series covering the Mountaire Farms COVID-19 outbreak. Read part one, where a current plant worker and local health care providers detail the ongoing lack of transparency around infection rates; and part two, where a former plant employee shares how she was let go after possibly contracting the virus and passing it on to her husband.