Business

Factory workers at Pilgrim's Pride, Mountaire Farms want protection from COVID-19

Posted April 16, 2020 7:00 p.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2020 9:25 p.m. EDT

— Factory workers at Pilgrim's Pride in Sanford and Mountaire Farms in Siler City say not enough is being done to protect them from contracting coronavirus, despite both companies taking several measures to help prevent the spread.

Pilgrim's Pride is offering unpaid voluntary leave and Mountaire Farms is offering paid sick leave, but employees say they fear skipping work will cost them their jobs.

"Everybody is scared. There is a lot of things from upper management that they're telling us. They're not giving them security of having a job," a Pilgrim's Pride employee said. "If you take these two weeks, you might come back and be replaced."

Pilgrim's Pride and Mountaire Farms

Two employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, say Pilgrim's Pride is supplying face masks and separating workers, but they're not cleaning the shipping department where two people tested positive for coronavirus.

A letter posted inside the plant confirms at least one employee was infected with COVID-19. A spokesman would not say how many workers tested positive.

"We have had team members test positive for COVID-19 in some of our U.S. facilities. We are providing support to those team members and their families, and we hope they all make a full and speedy recovery," said Cameron Knowles. "The health and safety of our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority."

The employees say several people threatened to walk off the job two times in the last week. They say the meat production floor is regularly sanitized, but they claim surfaces and machinery in the shipping area are not getting cleaned.

"The people making the meat for y'all aren't being appreciated," one employee said. "We're feeding the world. They are telling us we're food heroes when we're not even being heroes for ourselves."

Their concerns come as Smithfield Foods announced the closure of two more facilities in the Midwest -- forcing 5,300 people off the factory floor in Wisconsin, Missouri and South Dakota.

On Thursday, Harris Teeter announced three employees at its Greensboro Distribution Center contracted the virus.

"I wouldn't say it's concerning for customers," said Benjamin Chapman, a food safety specialist and professor at N.C. State. "I think it's really concerning for the company and the workforce."

The FDA says there is no evidence of "food, food containers, or food packing" transmitting COVID-19.

Mountaire Farms says three workers have tested positive at its plant in Siler City and one employee has tested positive at its facility in Lumber Bridge.

"They are scared right now because there are people who are infected from the job and others who are still coming into work who have been told if they decide to stop showing up out of fear of the virus that they should assume their job is terminated," said a contractor for Mountaire Farms, who requested anonymity.

Mark Reif, community relations manager, says Mountaire Farms is offering paid sick leave and encouraging employees to stay home if they do not feel well. Reif says contractors are not covered under the company's benefits, but they are urging the companies they work with to match their COVID-19 policies.

Reif say workers are required to get their temperature checked when they enter the building and the company has made it mandatory to wear face masks and face shields. Mountaire has also installed barriers on the production line.

"We're doing everything we know possible to protect our employees," Reif said. "We've been designated as an essential industry and it's an amazing team. We appreciate them working together and are proud of them. We have a responsibility to protect them."

A petition launched on Thursday morning, asking Mountaire Farms to assure all employees and contractors that they will have a job if they chose to stay home for safety reasons, has more than 1,100 signatures.

"Why not give everyone the option to have the flexibility of missing work if you feel concerned for your safety and your health," the contractor said.

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