In recent weeks there have been several news reports about meatpacking workers being infected with the novel coronavirus across the U.S. Some packing plants have reported dozens of cases, others hundreds.
Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Cold Spring, 15 miles from St. Cloud, has a workforce of more than 1,100 workers. The plant reported 194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of May 11. The number was 83 only three days before.
The outbreak at Pilgrim’s Pride likely accounts for the spike in COVID-19 cases in Stearns County, which has the third-most cases of the coronavirus among counties in the state, with over 1,740 reported cases and 10 deaths as of last weekend.
The plant stayed open and continued to operate despite complaints in March that workers at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19. Even the large number of recently reported cases has not motivated the owners to shut down the plant even with strong evidence of the virus’ prevalence.
Whatever plans there may have been to shut the plant down were preempted by President Trump invoking a clause of the Defense Production Act (DPA) in late April declaring the meat processing industry essential, thus forcing it to remain open. The president deemed the employees of these plants essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the DPA, workers like those at Pilgrim’s Pride can be forced by employers to continue working even if the workers feel they are not being provided adequate protection, including Personal Protective Equipment, against potential COVID-19 infection.
On May 12 Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general in a letter to President Trump that called on him to take immediate action to ensure the health and safety protections for these workers.
Issack, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is a Pilgrim’s Pride worker from St. Cloud. He said the factory he worked in has now reported a spike in cases. A Somali immigrant, Issack spoke only a little English. We interviewed him through an interpreter, who also gave only his first name, Balkis.
Issack said that he has worked for Pilgrim’s Pride since October 2018. For a little over a year he worked from 10 pm to 8 am hanging 32 chickens a minute with nine other workers, most of them also immigrants. They faced each other on opposite sides of the machine at arm’s length. Issack explained that all the breaks for the 70 to 80 people working there were taken at the same time and in one area.
There were only two bathrooms available for all persons on the production floor, one for women and one for men. There was only one drinking fountain for everybody. When the pandemic hit, this made it nearly impossible to socially distance.
In an effort to keep workers safe, Issack said, “A bag was put between the workers, a bag like one you get on the supermarket chickens. It was not medical, just one that was used for chickens.” He said he and the other workers were not aware of any other protective measures put in place.
Issack became ill in March and walked off the job days later. “I was sick for three days. Then I went to the clinic and then to the emergency room. I tested negative.”
Balkis said, “Issack would like to say something about how he feels,” then translated: “I love my job. I haven’t worked for four weeks. I would like to share with you how I feel about that. I am fearful to go back because the workers are not protected and they are not socially distancing.”
These expressions echoed the statements of Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-Minnesota (Council on American-Islamic Relations). At the beginning of May, Hussein called on OSHA and other state and federal agencies to investigate the Pilgrim’s Pride Poultry facility.
“CAIR Minnesota is calling on Pilgrim’s Pride to take immediate action to protect its employees from additional, unnecessary exposure and make whole those employees who have fallen ill potentially as a result of the company’s failure to take timely action,” said Salaam Naheeda of CAIR Minnesota in an interview with the MSR.
CAIR-Minnesota sent Pilgrim’s Pride a list of demands for the workers’ safety, including being informed of infected persons; having adequate space to socially distance; more aggressive sanitation; staggering shifts; additional breaks for handwashing; and COVID-19 posters in languages spoken by workers (posters were originally only in English).
The MSR reached out to management at Pilgrim’s Pride but was unable to get a direct response. However, they have told other media outlets that they are taking precautions to keep employees and the public safe.
Specifically, management says they are now checking all workers’ temperatures before they enter the plant, providing face masks to workers that must be worn at all times, increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, and increasing sanitization and cleaning.