Ella Ellerbee isn’t going into her job at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Bladen County this week. She needs the money — but it’s not worth her health, she said.
The plant is the largest pork processing operation in the world, employing 4,500 people and processing 3,200 pigs a day. It’s also a hotbed of COVID-19 cases, with nearly 80 workers across several counties having tested positive since last month.
“We don’t feel safe,” Ellerbee said at a video press conference Friday. “I don’t even feel safe. I pray every day the lord takes me out of there.”
Ellerbee is out for two weeks right now, she said. She’s using that time to push for stronger safety measures, paid sick leave and hazard pay for meat processing workers who say their working conditions make them choose between their wages and their lives.
The Farmworker Advocacy Network sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper Friday laying out the problem and asking for help for workers like Ellerbee. The North Carolina Justice Center, of which North Carolina Policy Watch is a project, also signed on to the letter.
From the letter:
With more than 800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at North Carolina meat and poultry processing plants and outbreaks in at least 19 plants, it is urgent that North Carolina’s leaders act swiftly to protect the thousands of workers at these plants who call North Carolina home. We are writing to express our grave concerns about COVID-19 related to working conditions in NC’s poultry and meat processing plants.
Many NC poultry and meat processing plants claim that they have plans for keeping workers safe against the spread of COVID-19. However, workers on the ground are reporting otherwise. Simply put, NC poultry workers are afraid to be at work now because they fear getting sick and getting members of their families and communities sick. They face an impossible choice: between losing their income or risking their lives. North Carolina government leaders have the power to require specific changes of the poultry and meat processing industry, by Executive Order, emergency rules, enforcing the OSHA general duty clause, and other measures. The voluntary guidance has not been enough to stimulate change in the industry. More is needed.
The conditions in NC’s poultry and meat processing plants exacerbate the risks of workers contracting COVID-19: close proximity on the production line and in breakrooms, cold and humidity, infrequent breaks, and lack of access to PPE. Most workers do not have paid sick time or adequate healthcare, most do not have health insurance, and after years earning low wages, they have little reserves to enable them to leave steady employment. Poultry and meat processing workers in North Carolina have to work, no matter the risks.
In Friday’s press conference Ellerbee and other workers described cramped and overheated working conditions, a lack of personal protective equipment and the feat that if they get sick or take time off to care for family members who are ill, they will lose their jobs.
“I don’t even want meat no more — I don’t even want to eat meat,” Ellerbee said. “Cause I’m telling people, they’re risking my life.”
Late last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” and saying their closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
That hasn’t stopped a number of plants from closing as meat processing employees fall ill by the hundreds, leading to meat shortages around the country.
Ellerbee said the president, and others who insist plants should stay open but won’t require strict safety procedures and proper compensation, are missing the point.
“President Trump – he’s a business man,” Ellerbee said. “All he’s worried about is money. We’re worried about taking this to your grand mamma, you got to take it to your children just because Smithfield doesn’t want people to get out of work and take care of their health. Health comes first.”
Two other workers, who identified themselves as Sofia and Gregoria, described similarly dangerous conditions at Case Farms in Morganton, which has a history of USDA citations for inhumane handling of chickens.
After being given a single mask to use for months at a time, Gregoria said she left the plant in April as it became apparent co-workers were falling ill and their employers weren’t taking proper precautions.
Without paid sick leave or health insurance, she said, most employees feel they have little choice but to keep working.
“I was really fearful, panicked knowing there were people that were infected and the plant didn’t want to say anything,” she said. “They have families, they have children.”
“Where is the social distancing for the workers,” she said. “Where is the safety and security?”
Angela Stuesse, an associate professor who teaches Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, also spoke a Friday’s press conference. Having studied the industry, she said, it’s always been clear that it depends on the labor of low-wage Black and Latinx workers and has never offered appropriate health care, leave and wages. The pandemic has simply made that reality deadly.
“As part of America’s industrial food chain, these companies will do everything they can to keep the lines running, no matter the cost to workers,” Stuesse said. “As long as this industry is permitted, they’ll put profit over people. Many knew about outbreaks for weeks before telling their employees. This industry will not regulate itself.”