Oxfam calls for urgent improvements in poultry plants as thousands of workers continue to contract COVID-19

By Oxfam

New Oxfam America report features interviews with dozens of poultry workers who cite dangerous practices within plants nationwide

BOSTON, MA – A new report by Oxfam America exposes dangerously inadequate safety measures within poultry plants that continue to put workers, their families and nearby communities at risk. The report, which includes interviews from workers nationwide, highlights three specific failures by the poultry industry to protect workers from contracting COVID-19: limited access to paid sick time, lack of social distancing on the processing line, and failure to provide important information to workers about infections and fatalities and safety procedures in appropriate languages.

“Workers are alarmed at new signs that the poultry industry has begun to rescind some of the cursory protective measures they made at the start of the pandemic,” said Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s US Domestic Programs. “With this health crisis far from over, the industry must finally prioritize people over profits and make substantive changes in order to save lives.”

The latest figures indicate at least 40,000 meatpacking workers have fallen ill due to COVID-19 and nearly 200 have died. This does not reflect the number of family and community members who have also been infected by sick workers.

Workers from Texas, North Carolina, Delaware, and Maryland interviewed for the report expressed mounting fear over a range of insufficient safety measures in plants including failure by companies to report infections or deaths to workers or the community, no social distancing on the line or during breaks, lack of appropriate masks or gloves provided, no sanitizing of facilities if positive infections have been reported, nor slowing of the production line.

Most concerning is the absence of paid sick time for non-union workers which forces people already living on the financial edge to work while sick.

“People should not be forced to choose between going to work sick or getting a paycheck. Now we have a highly transmissible infectious disease that has killed more than 150,000 people just in the US. And we’re still having conversations about paid sick leave. It isn’t something that should even be debated; it should be mandated,” said Dr. Celeste Anne Monforton with the Department of Health & Human Performance at Texas State University.

According to the report, few if any non-unionized workers reported access to paid sick leave. While some companies provide two-week sick time for COVID-19 cases only, they require proof of infection, leading workers to attend work despite signs of infection while awaiting results. And sick time coverage is rescinded if a test is negative.

Additionally, companies have been offering incentives to encourage workers not to stay home. At least two companies offered $500 attendance bonuses for a month for perfect attendance, and one plant in Texas offers an extra dollar an hour for a week of no days missed.

"Too many people feel sick, but they still come to work until they can't do the job--then they will go home,” says one worker from a poultry plant in North Carolina.

According to workers interviewed for the report, when they or their colleagues do contract COVID-19 they are rarely informed about infections or deaths. One Maryland woman told Oxfam that her 44-year-old husband, Miska Jean Baptiste, did not realize he’d contracted Covid-19 when he began to run a high fever. She says the local plant checked workers’ temperatures when they arrived, but didn’t inform her husband about his fever, and instead, gave him ice cream to reduce the reading.

After four days of attending work unaware of his illness, Jean Baptiste went to the doctors and registered a 105-degree fever. He passed away alone in a hospital several days later.

“The company said he was on vacation when he was in the hospital. Usually when someone passes away, they have a TV [in the plant], they put up a picture--but when my husband passed, they didn’t do it, they don’t want people to know,” says Jean Baptiste’s widow, who did not want to be identified.

Workers reported to Oxfam that the plants they work for have not spaced out people on the line, nor slowed the production line, or changed workers’ shifts. While some plants have installed plexiglass shields or sheets of plastic in locations including break room tables and on the line, experts agree that shields provide little protection while workers stand should-to-shoulder, often face-to-face in inadequately ventilated air.

“Poultry workers now are recognized as essential workers. We really need their labor force to bring food to the table. However, they don’t have any kind of protection. And nobody knows. Nobody knows how their lives are at risk. Their families. Nobody knows how the income that they are earning every week is really putting their life at risk,” says Martha Ojeda, Senior Field Organizer with Interfaith Worker Justice in Texas.

Oxfam’s report calls on the poultry industry to end its practice of “business as usual,” and commit once and for all to three clear changes in order to protect the health and well-being of its workforce: provide paid sick leave to workers (not contingent upon proof of positive Covid-19 test); implement social distancing within the plant, especially on the processing line; and communicate with workers and the community about incidents of infection and death, while also providing safety information in appropriate languages.

/ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • For several years, Oxfam has been working with a poultry worker justice coalition that includes worker centers, unions, advocates, experts, and academics. In the effort to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has been impacting the people who work in poultry processing plants, we reached out to some of these communities, and conducted dozens of interviews. We talked to workers from several countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Laos, Haiti), across various states and companies.
  • This brief is possible due to Oxfam partners who engage with poultry workers and are part of their communities. The follow workers centers provided worker testimonies and insight into conditions in the poultry plants: Centro de Derechos Laborales in Bryan, TX; Rebirth Inc. in Salisbury, MD; Western North Carolina Workers’ Centers; Martha Ojeda from Interfaith Worker Justice provided technical assistance and support for the worker engagement in poultry communities.

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