Maricela Martinez was thrilled when she was hired in early April to work as a housekeeper at Mountaire Farms in Siler City, North Carolina. Overnight, she became an “essential worker,” performing a crucial but dangerous job at a poultry processing plant with multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases. It was grueling work, but she was grateful for it. Since her husband injured his back in December, he’s been unable to work and the couple was in dire straits.

As a contract worker hired by a staffing agency operating inside Mountaire, Martinez would get paid less, have no health care or benefits, receive no overtime pay for working holidays, and have less sick time than American citizens considered direct employees of the company. But the $11 and change she made was better than nothing, so she accepted the position to work alongside hundreds of other immigrant poultry plant contractors in rural North Carolina.

Nationwide, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of who lives in the rural south. As Prism’s Tamar Sarai Davis reported, “Rural America is largely depicted as white and working class,” but “rural regions with the least robust health care resources are disproportionately home to people of color.” Since the1990s, “immigrants have migrated to rural areas at unprecedented rates, accounting for 37% of overall rural growth from 2000 to 2018,” Civil Eats reported. Undocumented and newly-arrived immigrants fill crucial roles in rural Central North Carolina, though their labor in the meatpacking and agricultural industries comes with few protections and little pay. 

Exacerbating these inequities further, the South’s rural areas have higher poverty rates, higher mortality rates, and lower life expectancies than other rural regions of the country, Facing South reported. These crises are especially pronounced in Black and Latinx communities. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold across the United States, experts said an outbreak in this region of the country would be “catastrophic.” The coronavirus has arrived in the rural south and in Central North Carolina, COVID-19 is quickly spreading among immigrant workers like Martinez who are employed by large poultry processing plants.

Dangerous lack of transparency

As Prism reported in part one of this series , the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in rural Central North Carolina has exploded over the last two weeks. In Chatham County, which encompasses the Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant in Siler City, COVID-19 cases have tripled since April 14. According to health care workers who spoke to Prism on condition of anonymity because they did not have authorization to speak to the media, it is largely immigrant workers and their families who are appearing at nearby hospitals and community health centers infected with the coronavirus.

COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry processing plants aren’t unique to North Carolina. Across the U.S., processing plants have become COVID-19 hot spots, including nearly 800 cases linked to Smithfield Foods in South Dakota and almost 900 linked to Tyson in Indiana. But this isn’t just about numbers. There is a human cost when companies fail to protect workers and refuse to communicate about the size of outbreaks emerging from their facilities.

Workers at meat and poultry processing plants nationwide are members of already vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic—low-income people, people of color, immigrants, and undocumented people who have no health care and few legal protections. These are the workers who are dying.

Even before Mountaire Farms stopped speaking to the media last week, advocates and workers suspected the company was underreporting the number of COVID-19 cases emerging from its Central North Carolina poultry processing plants. As Prism reported in part one of this series, the lack of transparency was dangerous for workers, who could not make an informed decision about whether it was safe for them to continue working.

Martinez says she was terminated four weeks into her employment at Mountaire for having the coronavirus, which she says she didn’t know she had.

Initially, Martinez was impressed by the measures Mountaire was taking to protect workers. She was one of several new housekeepers hired by the Siler City plant, where she made rounds every 15 minutes, a near-constant loop of cleaning any surface touched by workers in the plant’s common areas. Others were enlisted to stand outside of restrooms and dispense hand sanitizer to everyone who exited. Temperature checks were instituted at plant entrances and workers could not enter the facility unless they wore masks and other protective gear the company provided. Publicly, the company also boasted $1 per hour raises for employees who worked through the pandemic. Otherwise known as “incentive pay,” this offer did not extend to contract workers like Martinez who comprised a majority of the company’s rural North Carolina workforce.

All of these changes were rolled out around the time Martinez was hired, when the pandemic had already claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and Mountaire was suspected of withholding information regarding the size of the outbreak in the plant. Like other Mountaire workers who have spoken to Prism, Martinez confirmed the company wasn’t providing workers with up-to-date information about the number of workers testing positive or sent home for exhibiting symptoms. The lack of transparency sowed fear and led to widespread rumors.

“One day people would be saying it was nine people positive and then you would hear 20 and then 120. The numbers [you would hear] got bigger and bigger. Many people stopped working because they were afraid of the coronavirus, and then people would think that they didn’t come to work because they were sick,” Martinez said.

‘I didn’t know if I would see him again’

Martinez said she was afraid of contracting the virus, but she was taking the pandemic seriously and was wearing all of her protective gear each day she went into work. On April 23, around 5:30 p.m., she alleges that a Mountaire supervisor called her into the office and terminated her without explanation. Martinez said she asked repeatedly why she was being fired, and the supervisor told her to speak to her employer, meaning the staffing agency that hired her and that operates inside of Mountaire. The staffing agency told Martinez they had no knowledge she was going to be terminated, but they said they would follow up with her when they were able to obtain additional information.

“I got a phone call from the agency and they told me that I went to get a coronavirus test and I tested positive and I didn’t let anyone know and that’s why they fired me, but I never got a test. I never tested positive,” Martinez alleges. Mountaire did not respond to Prism’s request for comment regarding Martinez’s allegations. 

Martinez said she cried as she told her husband what happened at work. Hers was their only income and it was income they desperately needed, but her husband reassured her.

“He said, ‘At least you don’t have to risk contracting the virus [at Mountaire] anymore,” Martinez told Prism.

In a cruel twist of fate, Martinez’s husband began to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms the day she was terminated from Mountaire. He felt cold and was shivering under blankets. He started to cough and complained of tightness in his chest. On April 24, the symptoms got worse. By Saturday, April 25, Martinez was terrified her husband was going to die.

“He started having very bad pains in his back and all over his body. His fever was very, very high. He was shivering so much, it was like he was having a seizure,” Martinez said. “I thought he was dying right in front of me. I took him to the hospital, but I couldn’t go in with him. I didn’t know if I would see him again.”

Martinez’s husband tested positive for COVID-19 and spent four days in the hospital. When he was discharged April 29, Martinez picked him up from the hospital and requested to be tested for COVID-19, but she told Prism hospital staff declined to test her because she wasn’t exhibiting symptoms. She was told to presume she was positive and was instructed to go home and isolate herself.

Martinez said she is still confused about what happened at Mountaire, but she assumes she contracted the virus working at the company and that she gave it to her husband, who barely left the house since sustaining the back injury that left him unable to work. She grows emotional when talking about what the future will bring.

For now, she says, she and her husband have some chicken, vegetables, fruit, and water. Before she was terminated, she was able to pay the rent on their mobile home and pay their electricity bill. This has left her with $8 for the foreseeable future. For people like Martinez, a 67-year-old immigrant in rural North Carolina, work is hard to come by and there will be no Trump-signed stimulus check in the mail.

“I get worried thinking about next month and the month after that,” Martinez said, crying. “I know I need to think about what we are going to do, but it’s hard. It’s just me and my husband. We have nothing to sell. He cannot work. I’m scared, but at least I know for now, for the month of May, we are safe.”

This is part two of Prism’s May Day coverage of the Mountaire Farms COVID-19 outbreak. Read part one, where workers and health officials discuss the dangerous lack of transparency surrounding infection rates; and part three, a Q&A with Ilana Dubester of El Vínculo Hispano, a North Carolina organization serving rural Latinx communities that are home to many meat processing plant workers.

Tina Vasquez headshot

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.