ACCOMAC, Va. (WAVY) — Poultry workers, labor rights representatives and Eastern Shore community organizers are planning a protest car rally outside of the Perdue chicken plant in Accomac on Monday afternoon, in an effort to highlight what they say are insufficient protections at poultry plants, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It comes as Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged the problems workers at the commonwealth’s 12 poultry plants, including those on the Eastern Shore, where cases have shot up recently.
“These poultry plants are a vital part of our food supply chain, providing food to millions of people on the East Coast, but the health of the people who work in these plants is also critically important, Northam said Monday.
Accomack County has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases, up to 195 total as of Monday, April 27, including 143 new cases reported in the last week alone, a 275% increase compared to last Monday’s total of 52.
That’s the highest total increase in a week for any locality in the Tidewater region, including the seven Hampton Roads cities.
Accomack (population of roughly 32,000) is ranked 4th in Virginia in cases per 100,000 people, according to Virginia Department of Health data, with 602 per 100K. Harrisonburg, Virginia, another poultry hotbed in Virginia, is ranked 2nd with 709 per 100K.
A rally is also planned for Monday in Harrisonburg, organizers said.
An Eastern Shore health official told the Eastern Shore Post on Wednesday of last week that more than 50% of the COVID-19 cases on the Eastern Shore were linked to Accomack County’s Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods chicken plants, the county’s two biggest employers.
The plants have about 3,000 employees combined, and account for just under 12% of the county’s workforce.
Tyson and Perdue have taken steps to increase protections (Tyson closed this weekend for deep cleaning), but workers and labor representatives have said the initiatives are insufficient and/or have come too late.
“While the companies here in Virginia are taking additional safety measures inside their facilities to protect their workers and keep their plants operational, I am very concerned about the continued rise in cases, I grew up on the Eastern Shore and I know it very well,” Northam said. “It is a rural area with excellent access to health care, but I know how quickly our medical resources there could be overwhelmed with a surge in cases.”
Northam says workers in poultry plants are particularly vulnerable and many do not speak English as a first language, and close quarters of workers’ housing make isolation and quarantine more difficult.
He says fellow governors on the poultry-driven Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) have asked for federal assistance via the CDC to help coordinate an approach to tackle the situation, and a team was scheduled to be in Virginia on Monday. The teams include epidemiologists and contact tracers, as well as language specialists that speak Creole, the language spoken by many workers at Delmarva plants.
“We will ensure that workers are screened, provided care if they are sick, and measures are taken to protect other workers not showing symptoms.”
WAVY will be at the protest at Perdue’s Accomac plant on Route 13. It’s scheduled to start around 3:30 p.m. Follow @BrettHNews for updates.