Workers at Morganton´s farm
Lealó en español aquí

NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh- As the number of positive COVID-19 cases rises in meatpacking and poultry processing plants across the state, workers who are most affected are left in the dark.

“The truth is I’m scared to go back,” said a worker at Morganton’s Case Farms who went by the name Sofia. She joined a press call Friday morning along with other workers, advocates, community organizations and lawyers who are demanding transparency from state and public health officials. 

According to statistics released yesterday, there are 1,088 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 22 meat and poultry processing plants in North Carolina. The Case Farms plant is in Burke County in the western part of the state. Case Farms has not released or confirmed any of the purported coronavirus cases.

In internal documents leaked to the press, Butterball confirmed 52 positive COVID-19 cases among its employees in Mount Olive and Garner. On Friday, WITN television news reported one employee death at the Mount Olive plant; Butterball confirmed the death but did not clarify the cause.

Letter sent

The Farmworker Advocacy Network sent a letter to the governor’s office on Friday that lays out clear demands for paid leave, health and safety measures, premium pay for essential work, job protection and worker engagement. The official letter is linked here in English. (There is no Spanish version.)

Sofia emphasized the need for transparency from her employer about the number of positive cases. She wants to go back to work, she said. She has to. 

“We have to pay our bills and our rent. We can’t miss work and we can’t stay at home. But we are afraid. You never know who is sick [at work] with this illness.”

Sofia added that workers at Case Farms were promised one new mask to use per week, but that it was “a lie.” They were supposedly washable but fell apart. She wants three masks per week. Another worker named Gregoria said nothing has changed at the plant. She says the PPE came three months late and that physical distancing is not being enforced or encouraged. She alleged that the plant added a processing line to push out more product. 

“The industry has the ability to continue to operate and supply the food chain in the country as well as the ability, at the same time, to protect their workers,” said Hunter Ogletree of the Western North Carolina Worker Center. “We’re not asking them to stop providing food for our country. We’re asking them to take these simple urgent measures to protect their workers. It’s not a binary choice.”

He added that the lack of transparency about the statistics and protocols are only causing more rumors to spread in the small communities, and “rumors do not serve the good of anybody.”

Not a requirement

Attorney Clermont Ripley of N.C. Justice Center emphasizes that the Center for Disease Control only encourages employers to share that information, “but it has not been made a requirement to share with employees. So employees are not being provided with the information they need.”

In Siler City, workers at Mountaire Farms chicken processing plant are also afraid of contracting coronavirus while at work. On the press call, Ilana Dubester, director of the advocacy organization  El Vínculo Hispano, said Mountaire knew about an outbreak four to six weeks before implementing safety measures for workers on the line. 

“A couple of weeks later, they were given masks that are supposedly washable,” she said. “[But] there’s no real way of knowing that because there is no inspection of the protective measures.”

Case numbers were released after the National Guard tested Mountaire employees for the virus on April 23. There are 74 documented positive cases and, according to Dubester, 356 people were tested. “They only tested symptomatic workers and family members. We don’t know how many of which.”

For more of Enlace Latino NC’s coverage, read our investigation on the Butterball plant in Mount Olive and listen to the podcast 

Victoria Bouloubasis cubre la intersección de temas ambientales y movilidad económica en comunidades latinx, inmigrantes y refugiados en Carolina del Norte para Southerly y Enlace Latino NC. Es periodista...

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