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This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Tina Vasquez is an Ida B. Wells Fellow.
Oprima aquí para leer este artículo en Español, gracias a nuestros socios en MigrantRoots.
The average American consumes more than 100 pounds of chicken meat annually—or 8 billion chickens a year, nationwide. It should come as no surprise then that as the pandemic unfurled across the United States a year ago, poultry disappeared from store shelves as panic-stricken Americans hoarded food in response to reported shortages. While Americans turned to cooking during unprecedented times, there was a human cost for this comfort.
What happens to workers inside poultry plants, where the chickens Americans cook for dinner are slaughtered, processed, and packaged, by and large goes unseen by consumers. The everyday dangers of food production and processing rarely make headlines—until a deadly virus spreads or a tragic accident claims workers' lives.
At the end of last March, as the pandemic triggered a rising demand for chicken, Mariaisela Martínez was hired by a company called NIPCAM Services of North Carolina LLC, which provides staffing services to poultry processing plants, to work as a housekeeper at a sprawling nine-acre poultry processing plant in the heart of Siler City. The plant is operated by Mountaire Farms, the fourth-largest chicken company in the country, according to its website.
Across the country, poultry companies rely on staffing agencies to fill their needs for workers. Many of these staffing agencies actively recruit undocumented immigrants, allowing poultry companies to outsource the liability of hiring undocumented workers directly. Though the contractors hired by these agencies often perform the same dangerous work on the production lines as poultry plant direct hires, they may not receive the same pay, paid time off, or benefits like health insurance or protections.
The 68-year-old immigrant was charged with cleaning parts of the plant's cafeteria. She says she decided to take the job because of the stable paycheck; previously, she had bounced between off-the-books jobs with low pay.
But working at the Siler City plant didn't pan out like Martínez had hoped. She felt she was treated differently than Mountaire direct hires. "There were a lot of differences, and a lot of injustices, and I was witness of that," she said.
See also: COVID-19 hit Arkansas poultry workers at an 'alarming rate' as state and industry officials looked on
In 2019, there were 80 NIPCAM Services of North Carolina employees working at Mountaire's Siler City plant, according to an inspection report from the North Carolina Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHD).
NIPCAM and similar staffing companies play a major role in small Southern communities with poultry plants. In 2020, NIPCAM Services of North Carolina was the fourth largest employer in Montgomery County, North Carolina, which has a larger proportion of Latinx residents than the state as a whole.
As of 2016, according to Pew Research Center, there were an estimated 325,000 "unauthorized immigrants" in North Carolina. Meat processing plants, where 40 percent of workers are foreign-born, according to the Migration Policy Institute, were COVID-19 hotspots in North Carolina in the early months of the pandemic. In May 2020, while the outbreak raged, the ZIP code encompassing Siler City had the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. Latinx people comprised 35 percent of North Carolina's confirmed cases, according to a North Carolina Health News article from the time, but make up less than 10 percent of the state's population. However, even these alarming statistics do not paint a full picture, one that includes the realities and lived experiences of undocumented people.
Even before the added threat of COVID-19, a 2012 study found that Latinx workers in North Carolina's poultry industry may experience decreased lung function due to high levels of exposure to cleaning agents, bacteria, and dust on the job.
And those who are undocumented may not get the help they need. Research has found that undocumented people are fearful of accessing health care because of their immigration status, and that they account for far less health care expenditures per capita in the U.S. than other immigrants and U.S. citizens.
Last April, Mountaire Farms trumpeted its Siler City pandemic policies to the media, which included COVID-19 testing for anyone with symptoms. Managers encouraged employees who felt sick to take time off, but the company did not extend paid sick leave to contract workers employed by other companies. In a statement to a local television station, Mark Reif, Mountaire's former community relations manager, encouraged contractors to apply for full-time work with Mountaire Farms if they wanted to receive the same benefits as direct hires.
NIPCAM told us it did offer paid leave to workers with COVID-19 if they had a doctor's note.
According to Martinez, it's not that simple. She says if workers were able to work for Mountaire and earn more, they would. But for some, that's impossible. "They don't have papers, they don't have an ID, they don't have their driver's license. And those are the things that [Mountaire] requests in order to add their employees."
Mountaire Farms did not respond to repeated requests for interviews or emailed questions, including about whether it was aware that staffing agencies it contracts with might hire undocumented people to work in the company's plants.
NIPCAM co-founder Alvaro Villaveces asserts that workers at NIPCAM are treated well and that the company follows labor rules.
"The thing … we need to have clear in all of this is neither Mountaire or [NIPCAM] is breaking any Labor Department rules," Villaveces said. "The Labor Department looks at everything that we do. We meet everything that the Labor Department requires."
Villaveces does acknowledge that his company's workers get different pay and benefits than Mountaire workers, but says that's where the differences end.
"Yes, there is a difference between Mountaire employees and ours," Villaveces said. "The employees know that from the beginning, so it's not like it's hidden. It's totally in the open because Mountaire publishes the rates that they pay. They're all plastered everywhere. … So if anybody has told you they had a big surprise, they're lying because it's right there."
Staffing agencies are often a double-edged sword for workers, researchers and advocates have found: While they provide job opportunities to immigrants, including undocumented people who need work in a country that has criminalized both their employment and their existence, the power dynamics between the staffing agency, the plant, and its undocumented workforce are ripe for exploitation.
Latinx Workers in the South
In Siler City, North Carolina, Latinx people make up nearly 50 percent of the population. Tiendas and carnicerias dot the landscape, and church marquees advertise services in English and Spanish. On West Raleigh Street, Southern staple Piggly Wiggly all but rubs shoulders with the Latino grocery store Compare Foods.
The agricultural industry has fundamentally changed the demographics of the American South, and in Siler City, poultry is king. Mountaire Farms is omnipresent in Central North Carolina. From Siler City to the heart of the sandhills, Mountaire signs on the side of rural roads mark a mishmash of breeder farms, hatcheries, and broiler farms. At just six square miles, Siler City is small enough for Mountaire Farms' plant, which sits on a nearly 400,000 square foot plot of land, to stand out.
This community landscape is where Ilana Dubester formed the nonprofit advocacy group El Vínculo Hispano 26 years ago—a resource center for the local Latinx community that offers help navigating U.S. systems and services. The organization is one of only a handful to serve Latinx people in central North Carolina counties like Chatham, Alamance, Randolph, and Lee.
As Mexican immigrants found their way to her organization, Dubester remembers thinking: How the heck did they find Siler City? Over time, she heard stories about poultry company billboards, recruiters, and financial incentives that lured Mexican families to rural North Carolina.
"The companies at the time didn't care how workers got here, they just wanted the workers—documented or undocumented was none of their concern," Dubester said. "They wanted a workforce that would be willing to work for a low wage and do hard work for an extended period of time, not just start and quit. They found that in an eager and hungry immigrant community."
In 2016, when Mountaire Farms acquired a poultry processing plant that had remained shuttered since it closed after the Great Recession, the company's arrival in Siler City was seen as a godsend by local officials. Mountaire has since become one of the largest employers in Chatham County.
NIPCAM's history is less straightforward. At least nine distinct companies across six states include or have included "NIPCAM" in the entity's name. Villaveces is named in business filings for all of these companies. The website for Nolan Integrated Pest Control And Management (NIPCAM) Group says it's a group of companies that provide "unique and specialized pest related" services, including pest management consulting, termite litigation, pest management service work, pest control product sales, and testing/development—services distinct from those NIPCAM Services of North Carolina offers Mountaire.
Co-owned by Maxcy P. Nolan III and Alvaro Villaveces, other men from the Nolan family consult for the company, according to its website. Villaveces would not disclose whether the various NIPCAM entities he's associated with function as staffing agencies.
Villaveces wrote in an email that the company's "corporate structure … is nobody's business."
Two things, however, are apparent about NIPCAM: The company provides services beyond those it advertises publicly, and there is nothing extraordinary about the way it operates in the poultry business. Experts say that almost everywhere there are poultry plants, there are hard-to-trace staffing agencies funneling immigrant workers to large corporations, helping to fuel a multibillion dollar industry.
See also: North Carolina's hog industry could turn a corner—for better or worse
In an interview, Villaveces said that NIPCAM is a "very private company" that began as a consulting company in the 1980s and continues to do pest control and "a lot of other things," including staffing. "We work with different companies in different things," he said, but declined to comment further on which companies or on how many workers NIPCAM provides to Mountaire in Siler City or North Carolina at large. According to a 2017 OSHA form, NIPCAM's North Carolina operation claimed an annual average of 410 employees.
"We have built the business by word-of-mouth and by treating people well," Villaveces said of the company's approach to recruiting workers.. "So that's what we do. That is better than offices, than putting [up] billboards. If you do right by people, you get all kinds of people who want to come to work for you."
Martínez said she heard about jobs with NIPCAM through word-of-mouth. Another contractor explained that she wound up working at a Mountaire Farms plant through an online job search page where a man who worked for an employment agency posted that he needed workers for Mountaire. She said he would receive potential applicants at a small Mexican market in Robeson County, where he helped them fill out applications.
As an immigrant from Brazil, Dubester has spent decades building trust with the immigrant community in the region—including poultry plant workers. For years now, Dubester has sounded the alarm on staffing agencies for not treating workers fairly. El Vínculo Hispano recently hired an organizer focused on health and safety to work directly with laborers in the region.
As of mid-July, the North Carolina Department of Labor has received 50 complaints deemed "valid" associated with poultry processing employers, 37 of which were received during the early stages of the pandemic between March and August 2020. As of this spring, there had only been one inspection of a poultry processing site related to a COVID-19 complaint. While citations and penalties were issued in that case, according to the department, none were related to COVID-19.
Lines of Accountability
The details of the contracts between staffing agencies and poultry companies aren't exactly public knowledge. Scalawag and Type Investigations requested records from the North Carolina Department of Labor regarding NIPCAM Services of North Carolina's presence at Mountaire's Siler City plant. As part of the response, we received a 2015 contract between Mountaire and a company called AG Source Inc. Though Villaveces denies that NIPCAM has done business as AG Source, the file includes a 2019 document in which a lawyer for Mountaire stated that AG Source's current name is NIPCAM. According to the contract, AG Source Inc. was responsible for "the payment of federal, state and local payroll taxes, workers' compensation insurance coverage, compensation, and, where offered or required, benefits for the assigned employees."
Since December 2019, at least six NIPCAM workers have taken NIPCAM to court before the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which administers the state's Workers' Compensation Act. The nature of the hearings, however, are unclear. Documents and recordings related to them are not available to the public, and Michelle Denning, general counsel for the Industrial Commission, said the reasons for court hearings vary.
According to the contract, AG Source must evaluate and assign staff "to fulfill Mountaire's order for temporary labor services" and provide management oversight for these workers. The contract stipulates that Mountaire Farms pays AG Source $15.60 an hour for the services it provides, with bonus or incentive payments "billed at actual cost with no additional percentage charged to Mountaire."
The contract also shows how staffing agencies allow companies to avoid accountability when something goes wrong. AG Source, not Mountaire, is responsible for workers' compensation claims, for example. The contract states, "Contractor agrees to defend and indemnify Mountaire from any claims filed against Mountaire by Contractor's employees based upon injuries which are covered under workers' compensation statutes or insurance."
According to the contract, AG Source is responsible for ensuring that the employees it provides are authorized to work in the United States. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 established federal penalties for employers who knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants. Regulations introduced to enforce IRCA also require employers to verify a prospective employee's work eligibility through the use of a Form I-9, which must be completed by each new hire by the first day of their employment.
When NIPCAM first registered as a North Carolina business in 2011, there was no requirement in the state for companies to use E-Verify. The web-based system, operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in partnership with the Social Security Administration, allows employers to electronically verify that new hires are authorized to work in the United States. The state law changed a year later, after the North Carolina General Assembly passed E-Verify legislation that rolled out in three phases for nongovernmental employees, the first of which went into effect in October 2012 and required employers with more than 500 employees to use E-Verify. Today, all employers in North Carolina with more than 25 employees are required to use the system.
See also: Food, power, and place in Northwest Arkansas
Villaveces asserts that NIPCAM adheres to labor laws. When asked directly if NIPCAM uses E-Verify, Villaveces answered, "With the papers that they give us, yes." In a subsequent call, he added, "If they don't pass E-Verify, we don't hire them."
There is, however, an exception to E-Verify that some staffing companies use to get around it, said Clermont Ripley, co-director of the Workers' Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center. In North Carolina, workers whose term of employment is less than nine months in a calendar year do not count toward an employer's total number of employees.
"It's treated as a seasonal exception, and I think the reason it exists is because of the agricultural lobby wanting to not have to E-Verify their migrant farm workers, but it also allows employers to get around using E-Verify by instead hiring someone through a temp agency on a temporary basis," said Ripley. "Some businesses—and also the temp staffing agency, if they are not hiring someone on a long-term basis—can also avoid the E-Verify requirement. It's a way to have undocumented people working in your workforce without having to check their work authorization."
(Alvaro Villaveces said NIPCAM workers are not classified as temp workers. "They're there as long as they show up to work," he said. "Everybody has a job until they quit. So there is no temporary work.")
Staffing agencies that provide temp workers to major companies are common, and these exploitative work arrangements don't just hurt undocumented immigrants. According to a report by the Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit organization Temp Worker Justice, which supports temp workers, "workers employed by staffing agencies can be in the same position for years, or remain in the industry, shuffled between many different temp assignments for the length of a career."
Nationwide, the average full-time temp worker earns 41 percent less than the average employee in a standard work arrangement, and just a small minority of these workers receive benefits of any kind. Only 12.8 percent of temp workers have employer-provided health insurance, though they are on average twice as likely to be injured on the job in higher-hazard blue-collar industries like poultry processing, according to a 2017 analysis of Washington State workers' compensation claims. Notably, both African Americans and Latinx people are overrepresented in the temp workforce. Black workers make up 25.9 percent of temporary workers, but only 12.1 percent of the workforce as a whole; Latinx workers are 25.4 percent of temporary workers, but only 16.6 percent of the entire workforce. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of workers classified as contingent employees grew by 52 percent in North Carolina compared to 39 percent in the U.S. economy as a whole.
Historically, the poultry industry has gone to great lengths to recruit immigrants to perform some of the most demanding, dangerous, and low-paying jobs in the nation. In Mississippi, one plant recruited nearly 5,000 workers in the 1990s as part of an initiative it called the "Hispanic Project." More recently, ProPublica documented how Case Farms, another poultry company, recruited undocumented immigrants and refugees. ProPublica also found that poultry companies take advantage of a green card program known by its category EB-3. The program, which is intended to provide workers to businesses while creating a pathway to permanent residency for unskilled immigrants, has been used heavily by poultry processors with poor safety records, like Case Farms. In a statement released after ProPublica's reporting, Case Farms said it follows the law and treats workers fairly.
Villaveces argues the same, and said that workers have "all kinds of choices" for employment. "One: They don't have to be there, and two: If they're there, it's because they want to," he said. "It's not because they're made to or they have to do it because there is no other choice available."
According to Villaveces, NIPCAM is careful not to mistreat a much-needed labor pool. "We bend over backwards to keep them," he said.
See also: The cruel tactic ICE is using to ramp up deportations
But that's not how it seemed to Mariaisela Martínez. She said she got fewer perks than direct-hire workers and felt discouraged from seeking help from the nurses' station.
And her access to Mountaire supervisors was limited, she said. "As an employee of NIPCAM we were not allowed—we were prohibited—to go and have interactions with Mountaire personnel supervisors in their office," Martínez said. "If we had a question or a concern, or we want clarification about working hours, anything related with that, we were not allowed to go there and talk to them. Because we were employees of NIPCAM, we could not jump the chain of command."
Three NIPCAM workers El Vínculo Hispano spoke with said they could only communicate with Mountaire supervisors if they knew English or had a translator. Villaveces insisted that NIPCAM workers are under Mountaire "supervision" and "command" at the plant. "The only presence that we have inside of the plant is to be support for our workers," he said. "We want to know what's going on with our workers."
Ripley said the joint-employment arrangements create a lot of confusion about who the contractors' actual employers are, and when an issue arises—like if a worker is injured, for example—it sometimes requires litigation in order to determine which company actually employs the worker. Undocumented workers doing dangerous jobs are also low-wage workers who don't have access to attorneys to help them litigate claims. They are often afraid of deportation because of the ways their immigration status can be weaponized against them—and those fears are not without justification.
In 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents posed as OSHA trainers in a sting targeting undocumented contract workers in North Carolina. The agents lured the undocumented workers to a mandatory safety training meeting in order to detain them.
In August 2018, Koch Foods settled a multiyear lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of workers at its Morton, Mississippi plant over claims of sexual and physical assaults against Latinx workers. (Koch Foods, which did not admit to any wrongdoing when it settled, entered into a three-year consent decree that provided over $3.5 million in relief for the affected workers and required the company to implement anti-discrimination policies.) In August 2019, this same Koch plant was one of the seven targeted as part of what a Justice Department official said was the largest single-state workplace raid in U.S. history, during which ICE apprehended nearly 700 undocumented poultry plant workers in Mississippi.
It's important to note that workers took a risk in speaking with Scalawag and Type Investigations for this story and exposing their experiences with staffing agencies. They did so knowing that they could experience retaliation or termination by their employers, or targeting by ICE.
Long-Standing Safety Concerns
Animal slaughtering and processing facilities have long been some of the most dangerous workplaces in the United States: The rate of reported injuries and illnesses in these facilities is over 40 percent higher than the reported rate for the private sector as a whole. Meat and poultry workers "labor in environments full of potentially life-threatening dangers. Moving machine parts can cause traumatic injuries by crushing, amputating, burning, and slicing," Human Rights Watch outlined in a September 2019 report about how workers' rights are under threat in these plants.
Poultry processing workers specifically have some of the highest rates of occupational illness in the country. OSHA and North Carolina Department of Labor records suggest some NIPCAM workers have faced the workplace dangers of this industry firsthand.
On March 5, 2019, 15 NIPCAM employees at the Siler City Mountaire plant were assigned to work in the "chicken hanging room." Workers in this area "unpacked live poultry from shipping crates or removed slaughtered birds from platforms and chilling vats," according to a state OSHD inspection report. "The birds are then hung by their feet, neck, or wings to shackles attached to conveyors."
On this day, work in the chicken hanging room concluded while the production line continued to run, so to "complete the remaining work hours," NIPCAM workers were given permission to wash the quill area in the picking room, according to the report. There, they used high pressure hoses to wash blood and feathers from the floors and equipment—including tail quill pullers, machines with rotating blades used to rip the tails off chickens.
A NIPCAM worker with the initials J.G. said in a witness statement that the machine's safety panels were down as he inched closer to the machine to aim the flow of water directly into the machine's rotating blades. Around 2:15 p.m., J.G.'s co-workers heard his screams. The oversized glove on his left hand was snagged by the machine and his hand was caught in the blades, according to the inspection report.
A supervisor activated the emergency stop. Paramedics were called, but J.G. was stuck, and he remained caught in the machine for a grueling 41 minutes as maintenance dismantled the quill puller around him. J.G. lost half of his thumb, index finger, and middle finger on his left hand, and sustained "serious lacerations" on the remaining two fingers.
The incident resulted in a North Carolina OSHD inspection and NIPCAM was cited for a "serious" violation: The inspector determined that either sufficient safety guards were not in place to protect employees when working with specific equipment, or adequate procedures were not developed and utilized to protect workers using it.
Villaveces said, "The problem that happened is that [J.G.] saw a feather in one piece of equipment, and he stuck his finger on it trying to get it. He was not supposed to be doing that."
"He was just supposed to be hosing down equipment."
Villaveces said that the plant where the incident occurred was newly opened and the company that Mountaire uses for cleaning did not have enough workers, so NIPCAM workers were asked if they would like to stay after work and clean. He insisted that workers often want to work extra hours to earn overtime, though incidents like this are unusual. "Nobody wants to have a person hurt," Villaveces said. "It's not like we have an accident every other week or every month … it's rare when we have something."
OSHA requires companies with more than 10 employees in higher-risk industries to keep a log of work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses, otherwise known as an OSHA Form 300. In 2012, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) cited a company called NIPCAM Services of Delmarva LLC for not keeping proper records of employee injuries. The company's state business records list Villaveces as its resident agent; documents obtained through a public records request say that the company's employees perform "poultry catching services at various chicken farms." The MOSH investigation found that although NIPCAM Services of Delmarva kept in-house reports of employee injuries, the company did not record fatalities, injuries, and illnesses using Form 300 and other documents employers are required to submit to OSHA. According to information obtained via a records request, the company's office manager "did not recognize" OSHA 300 logs and related forms when shown them and said that she did not know what they were.
In 2017, at least three NIPCAM companies that list Villaveces as a registered agent officially logged workplace injuries, according to OSHA 300 logs obtained via records requests. A NIPCAM company registered in Bogart, Georgia, for instance, had a disastrous few weeks. On May 8, 2017, a worker was struck by a forklift. Eight days later another injury occurred: a worker's chest was crushed by a forklift. In September of that year, a NIPCAM worker's finger was amputated after getting caught in a chicken cage.
See also: Safety looks like full bellies in a pandemic
Last year, OSHD fined NIPCAM Services of North Carolina $16,000 for a series of violations related to an incident in which a NIPCAM employee operating a forklift crushed the left arm of a subcontractor who was loading cages of chickens onto a trailer bed. According to records, OSHD determined that NIPCAM Services of North Carolina did not ensure the forklift operator had "successfully completed training." Villaveces declined to comment on these incidents.
COVID-19 and North Carolina Poultry Plants
The pandemic has made poultry plants even more dangerous for workers. Throughout 2020, North Carolina residents were largely left in the dark about the spread of COVID-19 at specific poultry processing plants, as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) refused to identify the plants with significant outbreaks—a practice that continues today. In a statement, the agency said there is not a required reporting mechanism to NCDHHS, meaning that plants do not have to report to the agency or local public health departments when multiple employees test positive for COVID-19. The agency said that it lacked regulatory authority to require such information or provide it to the public. The state Department of Labor, not NCDHHS, is responsible for worker safety in the meatpacking industry.
"For industries that are not required to report to NCDHHS, it is in the best interest of public health for private businesses to self-identify and work with NCDHHS so that we can help protect employees and communities," NCDHHS' communications manager, SarahLewis Peel, said in a statement.
Since October 2020, the agency has released weekly COVID-19 Clusters in North Carolina reports that include meat and poultry processing facilities; however, cases and deaths are not broken down by individual plants, leaving workers uninformed about their own workplaces. With the exception of congregate settings like nursing homes and correctional facilities, meatpacking and poultry plants have caused more COVID-19 infections than any other type of workplace or setting in the state. As of July 6, 5,103 meat and poultry plant workers in the state had been infected with the virus; 23 had died.
Different agencies take a more narrow view in their reporting of COVID-19-related workplace deaths in the poultry industry. In a July 12 statement, the North Carolina Department of Labor said that the agency is aware of three COVID-19 work-related deaths associated with poultry processing establishments, all of which occurred in 2020. While employers are required to report work-related deaths associated with COVID-19, the agency said in a statement earlier this year that determining that COVID-19 is work-related "can be very difficult" because symptoms generally do not appear until 2-14 days after exposure.
The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) created a database mapping COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system, largely relying on information collected from local news reports. FERN reports that 433 Mountaire workers across two North Carolina plants have tested positive for COVID-19 and one Siler City worker has died, though advocates believe these numbers are not representative of the true number of cases and deaths tied to Mountaire.
"Often neither a COVID-19 [positive] employee nor their employer knows the exposure source of COVID-19, as it is a communicable disease and most exposures occur without knowledge," an NC DOL spokesperson said in an email. "If an employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19 that does not necessarily mean that the employees contracted the disease at work, and it was work related." As an example, NC DOL cited the death of a poultry processing plant employee that was investigated by the state OSHD, in which evidence gathered "indicated the likely exposure source to the coronavirus came from an unknowing infected visiting relative."
As of mid-July, OSHD has conducted nine on-site "interventions" in North Carolina poultry processing facilities "to observe and review the employer's COVID-19 exposure control plans and measures that were implemented at the sites," according to NC DOL. "Recommendations for additional preventative measures were made, as appropriate."
The exact number of COVID-19 deaths connected to poultry plants may never be known, but one thing is clear: the Latinx population in North Carolina has been hit hard by the pandemic. At one point last summer, nearly 50 percent of all COVID-19 cases were among Latinx North Carolinians, though the Latinx population of North Carolina is approximately 10 percent of the state.
See also: This Durham trio wants you to pay Black farmers
These information gaps in the state have left poultry plant workers with little understanding of outbreaks in the workplace. Workers also face a complicated landscape when they try to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
One NIPCAM worker told El Vínculo Hispano that if workers choose to get vaccinated away from the Mountaire plant, they must take days off if they experience side effects that make them feel too unwell to work—and this time off is counted against them as part of the points system the plant uses to track workers' absences. If NIPCAM workers get vaccinated at the plant, their missed work days are not counted toward the point system, the worker said. (Alvaro Villaveces said that workers will not be penalized if they have a doctor's note.)
Some undocumented workers are employed under aliases. Although government-issued identification is not required for vaccination in North Carolina and NCDHHS has encouraged providers not to ask for ID, there have been reports of requests for identification at some vaccination sites. In Chatham County, which encompasses Siler City—a former epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in North Carolina—although 47 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated as of mid-July, only 31 percent of Latinx people in the county are fully vaccinated.
Before retiring in December, Mountaire Farms' Community Relations manager, Mark Reif, had not given a public update on COVID-19 case numbers at the company's two North Carolina poultry processing plants since April 2020. The company's new spokesperson, Catherine Bassett, did not respond to requests for information regarding the company's relationship with NIPCAM or information related to plant infection rates. In July 2020, Bassett told The New Yorker that Mountaire Farms is not releasing COVID-19 infection numbers. "I don't even know those numbers," Bassett said.
But not everyone has stayed silent.
By August, Mariaisela Martínez had become a local face of the COVID-19 outbreak among workers in North Carolina's poultry plants, speaking to local media outlets about her experience working at Mountaire Farms' Siler City plant as the virus spread. She used her full name and allowed herself to be photographed in a neon orange work vest, her hair poking out of a visor, and a full face of makeup with black eyeliner rimming her large, almond-shaped eyes.
"My heart tells me that I'm better when I'm not telling lies and I didn't think shielding myself in anonymity would be valuable. Quite the opposite, I think," Martínez wrote in a text message.
On April 23, a few weeks after she was hired by NIPCAM Services of North Carolina to work at Mountaire's Siler City plant, Martínez said she was told to leave because she had tested positive for COVID-19, though she had never taken a test. "I walked in [the office and] there was this Hispanic lady at the desk and she told me, 'I need your ID. … This ID is going to stay here. You're not employed here anymore.' … That was the explanation," Martínez relayed. "I said, 'Why, but what happened? I don't understand.'"
Martínez left, believing she was fired, though Villaveces later said it was a miscommunication over sick leave.
Regardless, Martínez returned to the plant in May 2020. Once again, the job proved unstable, and she was fired in late September after she accused other workers of taking her cleaning supplies. The day she was fired, Martínez said a NIPCAM supervisor instructed her not to speak to journalists and warned against tarnishing "the image of the company."
"I told her, 'I've never talked bad things about the company,'" Martínez said. "I just told the truth."
As North Carolina's poultry plant workers struggled through the nightmare of the pandemic, the federal government granted NIPCAM companies linked to Villaveces six Paycheck Protection Program loans across Maryland, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, accounting for more than $2.2 million. Meanwhile, Mountaire's wealthy and powerful owner, Ronald Cameron (who donated nearly $3 million to Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and affiliated organizations) used his political allies to help him take advantage of the pandemic to weaken worker protections, according to reporting from The New Yorker.
As the virus spread, regulations on the speed of the birds moving through processing plants were waived for certain facilities, forcing workers to work harder and faster than before. In the spring of 2020, the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service approved requests from 15 large poultry plants to increase line speeds, "squeez[ing] workers even closer together on production lines," the National Employment Law Project reported. There is evidence to suggest these increased line speeds hastened the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities.
One of the plants that received permission to increase line speeds was Mountaire Farms' Lumber Bridge, North Carolina plant, which 2016 records from the state's Department of Labor describe as the largest large chicken processing facility in the world, processing approximately 540,000 chickens per day.
During the pandemic, poultry plant workers have struggled to keep pace with production lines.
"The speed is so great that there is not a single day when loads of chickens [do not] fall to the ground because it's impossible to pack and cut them [in time]," said a worker about her experiences at one of Mountaire's plants. "Every day we have large amounts of chicken on the floor. Many people complain of pain in their back, hands, and elbows, but [Mountaire doesn't] care."
In November 2020, the Trump administration pushed a proposal that would have done away with waivers entirely and allowed companies to permanently increase line speeds from 140 birds a minute to 175—despite the fact that workers, thousands of whom had gotten sick or died or otherwise feared for their lives, said that faster line speeds made social distancing difficult or impossible.
During President Joe Biden's first 30 days in office, his administration withdrew the proposed rule. On February 1, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced it is seeking internal documents from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate multiple coronavirus outbreaks at meat and poultry processing plants in North Carolina and throughout the country. The investigation is focused on three of the nation's largest meatpackers. Those companies do not include Mountaire Farms.
Integrity, Respect, and Dignity
Back in November, workers and advocates across North Carolina came together in Raleigh for a Día de los Muertos event to honor North Carolina immigrant farm workers and poultry and meatpacking workers who died from COVID-19. Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday spanning the first two days of November in which families welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones. Altars adorned with candles, photos, flowers, and food are common and at the November 5 event in Raleigh, the photos of deceased workers lined large tables covered in orange paper flowers and notes. During the event, one person held a sign that said, "Cheap chicken shouldn't cost workers lives."
The Reverend Daniel Dario Robayo Hidalgo spoke at the event. As a missioner for Latino Ministries, a part of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina which includes a farm workers ministry, Hidalgo is in direct contact with the state's countless front-line immigrant workers. While state agencies have argued about their respective jurisdictions and responsibilities to protect workers, bad things are happening to real people, Hidalgo said. The photos of deceased workers at the event were a reminder of this.
Some workers scheduled to speak at the event canceled, deciding that speaking publicly was unsafe, Hidalgo said. Many workers who did appear at the event only used their first names, fearful of workplace retaliation or worse. Hidalgo remembers one woman who took the stage toward the end of the event. She was a "tiny person," he said, who spent hours working the poultry line and many days sick with COVID-19. The reverend said that the woman and other workers who spoke stressed that they were human beings and deserved to be treated as such. The workers made it clear, he said, that people like them provide the food Americans eat and that the nation must honor its obligations to these workers. "If we pretend that we can leave a whole sector of our society uncovered by protections, we continue to jeopardize the whole," Hidalgo said. "As a person of faith, it has to do with integrity, respect, and dignity of every human being," he added, "because we harm the creation when we don't take care of each other."
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