Environmental groups petition the governor to report COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants

The letter adds to the chorus of Latinos and advocates demanding transparency from the state
Victoria Bouloubasis 18 jun., 2020
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On Tuesday, June 16, 18 representatives from 16 environmental groups signed onto a letter with clear asks for transparency and safety measures at meatpacking plants./ST

NORTH CAROLINA, Durham- Latinos make up 45% of positive COVID-19 cases in North Carolina. With that number on the rise, essential workers remain disproportionately affected, especially immigrant workers in the food system. 

N.C. leads the country with the fastest rate of coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking and poultry plants. DHHS refuses to release data on these outbreaks and where they occur. This lack of transparency and intervention has prompted several community stakeholders, immigrant and worker advocates and journalists to petition Governor Cooper.

18 representatives signed the letter

The latest to join the chorus advocating for essential workers and their families is a loose coalition of environmental justice organizations. On Tuesday, June 16, 18 representatives from 16 environmental groups signed onto a letter with clear asks for transparency and safety measures at meatpacking plants. The groups urge the Cooper administration and DHHS “to ensure that all race and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 tests, cases and fatalities, as well as additional guidance for the protection of critical infrastructure workers, including meat processing and poultry processing plant employees, be released to the public.”

Out of the 18 environmental organizations that signed the letter, two groups work explicitly with immigrant workers in Latino communities: Student Action with Farmworkers and Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. Lariza Garzón, EFM’s executive director, is the only Latina among the 18 signatures. Garzón says it’s not often that environmental organizations reach out to collaborate on worker issues.

A reminder

“It was a reminder that together we’re able to achieve more,” Garzón told Enlace Latino NC. “Environmental issues disproportionately affect the communities that we work with. It’s important to look at the issue of what’s happening in the meat processing plants both for the environmental and the human impacts it has in the community.”

[su_quote] It’s important to look at the issue of what’s happening in the meat processing plants both for the environmental and the human impacts it has in the community,

Lariza Garzón, Episcopal Farmworker Ministry[/su_quote]

The coronavirus is rapidly spreading through counties where meatpacking plants are located. Among the top counties with increasing rates in June are Duplin and Wayne (where Butterball has a facility), Chatham (where Mountaire Farms is located), and Lee (where a Latino employed at Pilgrim’s Pride died in May).

The state’s lack of transparent data during the pandemic has created tension in communities where cases are on the rise. On June 10, Latino community stakeholders hosted a call with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen to express their concerns. On that call, Pablo Friedmann, the coordinator for Durham Public Schools’ Multilingual Resource Center, highlighted that the only reason the public knows about meatpacking outbreaks is through journalists reporting them.

“In Chatham County, for example, there is no racial equity data but we found out because reporters found out about it,” Friedmann said. “More people are going to die if that doesn’t come out. We can’t hide behind the privacy shield when there are dozens of outbreaks.”

Worried making data specific

Secretary Cohen responded that she worried making data specific to racial and ethnic demographics would be what “other folks latch onto” to stigmatize communities, like Latinos, with the virus. “I’m very concerned about that narrative,” she said.

In April, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, drew ire after she appeared on Fox News to talk about a Smithfield Foods plant closing after an outbreak. She said “99%” of the infection “wasn’t happening inside the facility” but inside workers’ homes, “because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments.”

For N.C.’s Latino residents, the grim reality of the coronavirus’s adverse effects on the community— months into the pandemic— outweighs any potential stigma. Advocates say the lack of available workplace data to determine who is getting sick, and where, exacerbates the problem as Latinos make up almost half of the total coronavirus cases in the state.

“We’re extremely concerned about what the data is revealing and we’re even more concerned that we don’t have all the data,”. Says Garzón (who was not on the call).

50% of nations meatpacking workers are people of color

According to an estimate calculated by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than half of the nation’s meatpacking workers are people of color; 34.9 percent are Hispanic and 22.5 percent are Black. Of the frontline meatpacking workers—those who work shoulder to shoulder with a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus—CEPR estimates 51.5 percent are immigrants and one-quarter of those workers live in families with limited to no English proficiency.

“Denying people information on how the pandemic is affecting their own lives is denying them the ability to make decisions for the health of their families and communities,”. “If they have to work, they deserve to find out how this pandemic is affecting their health.”

The June 16 letter petitions the Cooper administration and DHHS with seven specific tasks:
  • Require public disclosure of the number of all confirmed cases of COVID-19.
  • Add information reflecting locations of polluting facilities by zip code.
  • Require employers to test ALL employees; and require all workers who test positive to self-quarantine for at least 14 days and to test negative before returning to work.
  • Require employers to provide the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and washing stations and hand sanitizer for all employees.
  • Provide sick leave and hazardous pay for any employee working during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Require employers to follow social distancing guidelines at their facilities.
  • Encourage different agencies within the state government to work together to address
  • environmental justice issues and COVID-19 response.

This week’s letter comes in addition to a separate letter sent to the governor by the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) on March 31 and another on May 8.

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Victoria Bouloubasis

Victoria Bouloubasis is an independent journalist and filmmaker in North Carolina. She covers themes related to human rights and social justice in the U.S. and Latin America.

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