As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in North Carolina, there is still a lack of data regarding outbreaks at meat-packing plants, where employees work close to one another on assembly lines and kill floors.
The dearth of transparency by both the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the meat industry prompted 18 environmental justice and worker advocates to petition Gov. Roy Cooper to provide more information and strengthen employee safety requirements.
The letter, dated June 16, urges the Cooper administration, including 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.”
Meat-packing plants and agribusiness in general have been reluctant, if not hostile, to disclose the extent of the disease in their facilities. DHHS has refused to release data by facility, saying it doesn’t regulate the plants.
(Policy Watch is among a coalition of media outlets suing DHHS and Gov. Cooper over their failure to provide public records, as required by law. Today, a judge ordered the parties to enter into mediation, starting July 14.)
Most rank-and-file plant workers are from communities of color. Both statewide and national data has shown that Black and Latinx people account for a disproportionate percentage of the COVID-19 cases.
As of May 28, 2020, according to the groups, Blacks accounted for 31% of North Carolina cases, but make up only 22.2% of the population. Thirty-six percent of confirmed cases are Latino people, who compose only 9.6% of the state population.
“Yet, even now the number of workers infected in plants in North Carolina remains elusive – a problem only further compounded by recent reports indicating that neither the meatpackers nor state or local officials are moving toward reducing these gaps in needed public health data,” the letter goes on.
The groups asked for seven changes to the administration’s current policy:
- 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.
- Require employers to follow social distancing guidelines at their facilities.
- Provide sick leave and hazardous pay for any employee working during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Encourage different agencies within the state government to work together to address environmental justice issues and COVID-19 response.
As for smaller meat processors, they wouldn’t have to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in order to be eligible for state grants, according to a bill that moved through the agriculture committee yesterday.
House Bill 1201 would appropriate $15 million to the NC Department of Agriculture to award as grants to small meat processors, which would alleviate any bottlenecks in the beef, pork and poultry supplies.
Rep. John Ager, a Democrat from Buncombe County, wanted to amend the bill to add worker protections and to require workers to be paid for two weeks if they can’t work because of COVID-19. “It’s money well-spent to keep workforce healthy,” Ager said during the agriculture committee discussion. “These meat and poultry plants don’t operate without workers that’s what this amendment is all about.”
The Farm Bureau immediately opposed the change. “This amendment puts a regulatory requirement on very small processors the grant is trying to help. They’re already trying to follow CDC guidelines,” Paul Sherman of the Farm Bureau told the committee.
Although the funds would be in the form of a grant — free, as opposed to a loan that would need paid back, Sherman said the amendment “would kill the interest in small processors from applying for the grant.”
Bill sponsor and Republican Rep. Jeffrey Elmore lives in Wilkes County, home to the Tyson plant, where at least 570 of 2,244 employees — a quarter of the workforce — tested positive for the coronavirus in May.
“You’ve got to remember is this [bill covers] very small processors with not a lot of employees,” Elmore said. “The grant money that could be used for machinery would be going to sanitation. It’s like taking a bazooka to an ant.”