Prism’s coverage of COVID-19 outbreaks in North Carolina poultry processing plants began with an online tip, but soon multiple workers came forward—risking their livelihoods—to talk about the unsafe working conditions they faced inside the plants. All of them were women.
One of those women is Luz. The 38-year-old immigrant from Mexico has spent the last four years working at the Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina. Luz, who is not using her real name, said she estimates nearly 50% of the plant’s workforce are women—some are pregnant, some are elderly, some have preexisting health conditions, and almost all of them are the caretakers and breadwinners in their families. If they get sick, it causes a ripple effect in their homes, in their extended families, and in their communities.
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in rural central North Carolina, home to poultry processing plants owned by companies like Mountaire, Tyson Foods, and Pilgrim’s Pride. Nationally, North Carolina leads the number of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, ranking third in the country for the highest number of meatpacking workers who have contracted COVID-19. As of May 20, Enlace Latino NC’s Victoria Bouloubasis reported that there are 26 outbreaks at plants across the state and more than 2,000 workers have been infected. Three poultry workers are known to have died in North Carolina: Adelfo Ruiz Calvo, a 65-year-old Mexican immigrant and Siler City resident who worked at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Sanford; an unnamed Butterball worker in Duplin County; and Byakubire Mkogabwe, a 71-year-old Congolese immigrant and High Point resident who worked at Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro.
Dr. David Wohl, a professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and an infectious disease specialist, told Prism he was seeing a “huge” proportion of Latino community members tied to processing plants test positive for COVID-19. As more people get sick, women like Luz continue to speak out.
In a conversation with Prism May 22, Luz told Prism what she and other poultry plant workers are up against. Here she is, in her own words, which have been condensed and edited:
I work at the Mountaire processing plant in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina. I have various jobs assigned to me every day. I debone chicken, but sometimes I cut wings or breasts. I work with probably 3,000 people at the plant. We have people who work on different shifts on the line and people who work on the cleaning crew. There are a lot of us, and I’m speaking out today because measures weren’t taken to protect us. The company does not care about our health.
A lot of our workers have immune deficiencies because they are older. Some are pregnant, and others have chronic health problems. From the beginning [of the pandemic], [Mountaire officials] told us that they were not going to close the doors of the plant and that we had no excuse to stop doing our work. They even gave us all letters expressing to authorities that we are essential workers and that we were free to move around and travel to work. [Mountaire] only focused on the need of the company to keep producing. They never considered us as workers. We had to work side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow with no real protection.
They only started providing protective equipment about a month ago, very late into the pandemic, because of the outbreak happening at the plant in Siler City. Now we have a plastic, transparent shield on top of our helmets and there are hand sanitizer dispensers around the plant and the cleaning crew does deep cleaning in the bathrooms and common areas.
When our first workers started to get sick and started to miss work, Mountaire encouraged us to keep working. They offered us bonuses if we didn’t miss any work for the months of April and May. But a lot of people started to miss work, and the company wouldn’t tell us if they decided to stay home or they contracted the virus. Honestly, we don’t know how big the outbreak is. We don’t know the number of people we work with who are sick with the virus. They don’t tell us this information. We feel very vulnerable. We know people can get sick and be asymptomatic and then infect their families.
I do feel very vulnerable. Every day I wake up and I go to work and I feel scared. I use my protective equipment and I take my own protective measures. I do all of the things I’m supposed to, but you know what? I always think about my co-workers who are hired by contractors [and are not considered employees of Mountaire]. I think about them because they don’t have access to the nursing station like we do, they don’t have access to doctors or health care. They don’t make the money we make. They do not have medical or economic support.
None of us know who has or has not been exposed to the virus. [Mountaire officials] evade us at all costs. They don’t give us any answers. We ask: Are people I work with sick with the virus? We are told they can’t tell us or they don’t know. They tell us to ask the main office, but the women at the front desk there are very impolite, especially to Hispanic people. When we ask them questions about the virus, they tell us human resources is too busy for our questions and to come back later.
I don’t know a lot about how testing [for the coronavirus] works. Workers don’t know if the cost is high or if we can get tested without symptoms. I have heard from my friends who got sick that when you go to a hospital, if you tell them you work at the poultry processing plant, they test you immediately. This is because all of the outbreaks these plants have had. Some workers have gone to get tested and now they are afraid of receiving a bill. We don’t know if they will actually get a bill or not. We are not certain about a lot of things.
In my community, I haven’t seen information in English or Spanish with details about testing. Mountaire doesn’t provide us with this kind of information. All they have done is give us the letters that say we are essential workers, but they don’t give us any information about testing. I wish they would test all of us workers. If that day would come, we would feel calmer and safer.
At my plant I would say there are an equal amount of men and women working, but it is women raising our voices. The reason is because many of us are the head of households. We take care of the family, we take care of the children, and we are the breadwinners. We have to protect children, we have to protect our family and our community. Many of my coworkers are women with little children. Schools are closed and there is no place for the children to go. With all of this going on, with all of this stress, Mountaire is forcing us to work on Saturdays. We can’t afford to be vulnerable and exposed at work. This is why so many women who work in plants are speaking out.
I know six coworkers who have been sick with COVID-19. One of them is my close friend. She is an African American woman who is seven months pregnant and tested positive for COVID-19. She hasn’t come back to work. She sent me a message to tell me she contracted the virus. The rest of the people I know who got sick are Latinos. Everyone shared their symptoms and the experience they had so that we can be aware of what to look for.
It hurts me when I read articles where [company officials] blame Latinos and African Americans for our living conditions and say we are responsible for outbreaks in our communities. I’ve read articles where they blame Chinese people for the outbreak. These types of attitudes are very sorry. They are ridiculous. I’m not interested in blame; I’m interested in solutions. I feel very proud to be Mexican. I’m proud of my roots and I’m proud of my family. It’s important to have an extended family that is there for you, that can support you, that can act as a shoulder to rely on. That kind of support is not something to blame; it’s the support our communities need right now to feel safe.
It has been very sad to witness the deaths of so many Latinos [during the pandemic]. In many areas, like here in North Carolina, the majority of the people getting the virus are Latinos. It’s not because we are a dirty or inferior race. The reason is because we have to go to work. We have to provide for our families. We don’t have insurance. That’s the reason why we are exposed and why African Americans are exposed to the virus. There is a huge imbalance in this society and we don’t have any support.
Everyone always says America is wonderful; it’s a country where people have freedom. They say you are free here. But this doesn’t feel like being free. So much racism exists behind a curtain. For me, a very big problem is that people don’t see [immigrant workers] as human beings. We are just employees or just labor. I want people to really see us and care for us; I want people to think about us.