'We can't stay home': Undocumented meat packers sacrifice safety for paycheck

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly though meat processing plants in North Carolina as state health and agriculture officials work to keep production lines running.

Posted Updated

Joe Fisher
, WRAL multimedia journalist
TAR HEEL, N.C. — COVID-19 is spreading rapidly though meat processing plants in North Carolina as state health and agriculture officials work to keep production lines running.

The Department of Health and Human Services says 1,675 workers have tested positive for coronavirus at 26 plants in 17 counties.

The number of infections has more than tripled from 479 cases at 13 plants on April 28, the day President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing facilities to be critical infrastructure in order to keep them open.

At Smithfield Foods' plant in Tar Heel, 49 new cases identified in the last week brings the total there to at least 125 infections. However, the number is likely higher because DHHS and some local health department aren't reporting case totals by employer.

"It's risky for us ... [but] we can't miss work. We can't stay home," said one undocumented immigrant worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "We are afraid of this disease."

The woman doesn't receive paid sick leave, and her undocumented status prevents her from receiving a stimulus check, unemployment benefits or any other government help.

Dr. Angela Stuesse, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the poultry industry for 20 years, said meat packing plants across the nation rely heavily on undocumented immigrants.

“It helps us understand why it’s so hard for workers to gain any power [and] to demand higher wages, better working conditions and the right to sick pay," Stuesse said.

Forced to choose between a paycheck and their safety, Stuesse said infected employees are likely reporting to work.

"Folks who are working in these industries do not have a nest egg to fall back on," she said.

Meat processing companies, including Smithfield Foods, Butterball and Tyson Foods, all say they have updated policies to distance employees on their production lines and have increased the frequency of cleaning inside their plants.

Workers have told WRAL News in numerous interviews that safety measures, like face masks and other personal protective equipment, were made readily available after many of their co-workers tested positive for the virus.

Stuesse said workers in the processing plants work in cramped and cold conditions and feel scared to speak out to management.

“When workers join a union and start to organize or get sick with COVID and need support, often times, that’s when [management] discovers someone’s documentation status," said Stuesse, who added some corporations may turn a blind eye to workers' documentation status.

Stuesse points out many employees are hired by contractors who procure a workforce for the larger companies.

Smithfield Foods said it offers paid sick leave for employees at "high risk for serious complications from COVID-19." The company also said it never "knowingly" hires undocumented workers.

A statement on Smithfield Food's website reads, "We and other employers face significant challenges in determining whether employees are authorized to work in the U.S. That's due to identity theft and readily available, high-quality forged identification documents that allow undocumented workers to thwart even the best hiring practices and skirt the laws."

Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Smithfield Foods' plant in Tar Heel has requested DHHS perform a voluntary site assessment to ensure the building is following CDC guidelines. He said he expects other plants to make similar requests.

Reardon said production at meat processing plants in North Carolina has decreased by about 35 percent due to workers becoming ill or voluntarily staying home.

“Keeping these companies open is of significant importance to us and the community and the companies themselves," he said, "at the same time ensuring the safety of those workers in those plants."

Stuesse said safety improvements, including plexiglass barriers on the production lines, cannot stop the virus from spreading. She said she fears that, with no federal protections offering job security for undocumented immigrants, more infected workers will be out of a job.

“It’s not realistic to ask the industry to regulate itself when each company is competing against the next and looking out for their bottom line," Stuesse said.