Raleigh, N.C. — Workers’ unions and advocacy groups are calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to require meat and poultry producers to better protect employees in processing plants.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says 1,088 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at 22 facilities in 14 counties. More than 100 employees have tested positive since Wednesday.
Two new outbreaks have been identified in Burke and Surry counties. The other plants are in Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Union, Wilkes and Wilson counties.
“We’re all afraid,” said Ella Ellerbee, who works at Smithfield Foods’ plant in Tar Heel. “I am praying and asking God to keep me out of there right now.”
Andre Barnett, the president of United Foods and Commercial Workers 1208, says the number of cases at the Tar Heel plant and others continues to rise.
“These workers are putting their lives on the line everyday,” said Barnett.
WRAL has confirmed with six county health departments that 76 workers at the Tar Heel plant, which is the largest pork producing facility in the world, have tested positive for coronavirus.
DHHS has not responded to a WRAL records request asking for the names of the 22 facilities with outbreaks and the number of infections at each location.
MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, says protecting the food supply starts with protecting the food supply workers.
“I think [the numbers] are critical to protecting not just workers’ health, but our communities’ health because workers go home, they go to the grocery store, they go out in their communities,” McMillan said.
“We can not risk workers’ lives for burgers, bacon or blue jeans,” she said.
The North Carolina Farmworker Advocacy Network sent a letter to Gov. Cooper on Friday, demanding that he require facilities to increase personal protective equipment, provide paid sick leave and hazard pay, and protect the jobs of employees who want to stay home.
“Poultry and meat processing companies claim to be taking steps to protect their workers against COVID-19,” said Hunter Ogletree with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. “However, many times what we hear on the ground from workers does not reflect what the companies are saying in terms of the measures they are taking to protect their workers.”
Some companies, like Mountaire Farms, are offering paid sick leave to employees.
Smithfield Foods says employees who are quarantined as a result of being infected or exposed to the virus continue to get paid.
Butterball, Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods say they have increased cleaning protocols and instituted distancing policies on the production line, including plexiglass barriers between line workers.