‘If one of us gets sick, we all get sick’: the food workers on the coronavirus front line – The Guardian

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It was only about an hour into Sophia’s morning shift at the Tyson chicken plant in Springdale, Arkansas, when the air turned lethal. As the shrink-wrapped chicken parts rolled off the line at a relentless pace, Sophia’s job was to load them into boxes, for which she earned $10 an hour. It was grinding, monotonous work, and the room where she worked was kept so cold that it felt like standing in a refrigerator for eight hours straight.

On this day in June 2011, Sophia felt a hot, itchy sensation as the skin on her face started to burn. Then she started to feel as if a balloon had blown up inside her lungs. In a room at the plant where antibacterial chemicals were stored, a terrible blunder had been made. A plant worker had mixed chlorine with an acid-based antimicrobial agent, creating chlorine gas, a poison so terrible that, after its use as a chemical weapon on the battlefields of the first world war, it was banned under the Geneva convention. Even small amounts can inflame the lungs, causing respiratory distress and death.

As greenish-yellow fumes began to spread inside the plant, Sophia heard a man yelling, “Vamonos, vamonos!” Panic set in among the workers, many of whom were struggling to breathe. The exit closest to Sophia’s workstation was the same door through which the gas was entering. She pulled the top of her sweater up from under her rubber apron, stretching it over her nose. It was a futile gesture. As she waited for her frantic colleagues to get out of the door, all she could do was pray: “God save me, God save me.” When, at last, she made it outside, she saw dozens of workers sprawled on the pavement.

Springdale was ill-prepared for the scale of the disaster. The city had only four ambulances, so the fire department was scrambled to take injured workers to hospital. Sophia and others needing medical attention were eventually put on a city bus. Sophia was still struggling to breathe. She began vomiting and coughing up blood. Many of the 173 workers who were taken to hospital recovered quickly, but others had symptoms that became more serious. Three workers developed chronic asthma; Sophia (she did not want to use her real name out of fear of retaliation from Tyson, where she still works) was among them.

It was one of the worst industrial accidents ever seen in Springdale, and the biggest to hit Tyson’s Berry Street plant, where 600 workers attend production lines, in shifts, 18 hours a day, processing 140 chickens per minute. On most days, the stench of chicken manure hangs about the downtown complex, and a steady stream of trucks unloads crates of squawking chickens for slaughter, before their carcasses are stripped and washed with chemicals.

The Berry Street plant is one of 123 operated across the US by Tyson Foods Inc. With sales of $42bn last year, Tyson is the largest processor of chicken in the world. Founded in Springdale in the 1930s, the business transformed a once quiet agricultural town of fewer than 3,000 people into a sprawling city of 81,000. As the largest private employer, Tyson dominates the local economy and has built a reputation as a beneficent corporate presence. It makes large donations to local nonprofits, including food banks and, through its chaplaincy programme – one is assigned to every Tyson processing plant – has many local priests and preachers on its payroll.

However, allegations of a widespread effort to suppress wages has tarnished this charitable image. According to a lawsuit filed in late 2019 against Tyson and 17 other poultry processors in the US, the wages paid to the hundreds of thousands of mostly immigrant workers were kept low through illegal means. Since 2009, the suit contends, executives from the 18 poultry companies held secret meetings in Florida, where they conspired to fix lower wages by sharing detailed information about hourly pay and benefits. Tyson declined to comment on the suit.

Chicken processing is one of the lowest-paid and most hazardous industries in the US, according to a 2017 report by the US Government Accountability Office, which revealed that workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome at a rate seven times the national average. In 2013, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) placed Tyson in the agency’s severe violator enforcement program, which targets “recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat, or failure-to-abate violation” after a worker’s hand was severed by a conveyer belt. (Tyson said the proposed penalty was later withdrawn, when the OSHA was satisfied remedial action had been taken.) In 2016, after a worker’s finger was severed at a Tyson processing plant in Center, Texas, OSHA inspectors found more than a dozen violations, including inadequate safety guards on machines, carbon dioxide levels above exposure limits, and no protective equipment for workers handling chemicals. In March, a contractor cleaning machinery in a Tyson chicken plant in Alabama was decapitated in an accident.

After the 2011 accident, Tyson says it increased training for workers handling chemicals, and now stores chlorine and acid-based chemicals separately. However, in June 2019, five workers were hospitalised after being sprayed with chemicals from a hose at the Springdale plant. In a written statement, Tyson blamed a contractor for the accident. “A contractor left a hose without following proper rinsing or storage procedure and asked our team members to gather the hose for the contractor’s use,” the company said. One of the workers was reported to be in a critical condition for two days.

Sophia was back at work soon after the chemical leak at the plant. She had no choice. She still felt weak and faint, but she received no sick pay during this time. In the days after the accident, she had a recurring nightmare in which she relived the terror of seeing a female worker falling to the floor during the rush to escape.

While Sophia was recovering in hospital, she later told me, something changed in her. She had survived, and she wasn’t going to leave another woman behind again. She would find a way to speak out about the low wages that left her and other families barely able to make ends meet. They feared seeking work elsewhere, in case their injuries would cost them their health insurance. “I’m stuck and I had no choice but to fight,” she told me.

Sophia was not alone. Alarmed that their employer was not taking their concerns seriously, a number of workers, led by a group of Latina women, began taking on Tyson foods directly in a bid to negotiate better working conditions, living wages and sick pay. Many of them work at the Berry Street plant. They were still negotiating when coronavirus reached the US, and food factory workers were suddenly trapped on the front line, helping to keep Americans fed.

On 13 March, the first community-spread case of Covid-19 was reported in Arkansas. Not long after, Tyson told its salaried employees at corporate headquarters to work from home. Schools were soon closed in Springdale, but its processing plants kept operating, including Berry Street. Americans were stocking up with food, preparing for weeks of isolation, and demand was high. The US vice-president, Mike Pence, told food workers they were part of the “critical infrastructure” and must “show up and do their job”. As fear grew among meat processing workers that the plants may be unsafe, Tyson offered a bonus of $500 if people turn up for three months without missing a shift.

US vice president Mike Pence (second from left) visiting a Tyson Foods plant in Goodlettsville, Tennessee last year.

Sophia kept going to work every day, even though she was vulnerable to infection: her asthma, caused by the chlorine gas accident, increases the risk to her health if exposed to Covid-19. “I am afraid. My lungs are not healthy,” she told me last month. She had moved to the evisceration lines, cutting the tails off chicken carcasses, then removing any guts or feathers left, because the cold air in the packing room made her cough. “I don’t know where to be, where I can feel safe,” she said.

Sophia said she was afraid the virus would spread quickly through the crowded plant. But like other workers on the chicken processing lines, she had to keep working. If she didn’t show up at the Berry Street plant, she wouldn’t get paid. She also knew the cost of taking on the most powerful company in town: she had spent much of the last decade battling Tyson over workers’ rights, and she had learned that even the smallest concession involved a mighty struggle.

After the 2011 chlorine gas disaster, Tyson faced few financial consequences. Investigators with OSHA arrived on the scene just over 24 hours after the accident, and following a five-month investigation, judged that the company had been negligent. Tyson had failed to “ensure that the employees had effective hazard communications training”, and “not all employees understood the labelling system in the facility”, according to the inspection report (which I obtained through a freedom of information request). Although the failure was categorised as “serious”, the fine came to only $7,000. Yet during a year in which Tyson posted profits of $733m, the company contested that minimal fine, and through an informal settlement with the federal agency in 2012, paid only $2,500 – or $14 for each of the 173 workers whose injuries were serious enough for them to be hospitalised.

The workers at the Berry Street plant, some of whom were still dealing with the effects of the chemical gas leak, were unimpressed. Many of them attended a community health clinic a few blocks from the plant, where a member of staff, Magaly Licolli, a young Mexican immigrant, heard their stories. “These stories changed me for life,” Licolli said. She spent the next five years working with the poultry workers in town to try to improve their conditions.

In February 2016, Licolli stood outside Tyson’s headquarters alongside dozens of workers, many of whom had been injured in the 2011 chlorine gas incident. Licolli, by then director at NW Arkansas Workers Justice Center, was announcing the release of a damning report based on interviews with 500 poultry workers throughout the state – a third of whom worked for Tyson – who described poorly paid, physically gruelling work. Nine out of 10 of them said they received no sick pay, and nearly two-thirds said they had no option but to work while sick. Female workers said male supervisors put restrictions on their bathroom breaks, which meant they sometimes wet themselves on the production line.

The report offered a rare window into workers’ experiences in one of the state’s largest industries, and a chance for a largely immigrant workforce in Springdale to speak out against an unequal system that netted billions for Tyson, while many workers lived below the poverty line. “We were working within a very hostile culture in Arkansas,” Licolli recalled. “Talking about labour in the south was already a challenge because of its history of slavery, and the labour laws still, in many ways, reflect that kind of thinking.”

That hostile culture became even harsher after Trump’s landslide victory in Arkansas in the 2016 election. The state’s two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, frequently echoed the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Cotton sponsored a bill to cut legal immigration by half in a decade, while Boozman pushed for legislation to give Trump billions for his border wall. Both had received significant campaign contributions from Tyson, although the company had played an important part in boosting immigration, having sent buses to bring temporary workers from Mexico and put them to work in its processing plants and hatcheries.

The day after the report came out, the workers’ campaign group pressed Tyson for a response. Licolli and workers from Berry Street gathered to continue their protest outside a Holiday Inn in Springdale, where Tyson’s annual shareholder meeting was underway. Later that day, Licolli went to Tyson’s corporate headquarters, accompanied by a local minister and Minor Sinclair, a director of US domestic programmes for Oxfam. Licolli was the only Latina at the table before a dozen or so executives, all but one of whom were men. She recalled the tension around the table. “They were really mad that we were taking these actions,” she said. “I felt like they were lecturing us.”

Executives pointed out the various measures and processes in place for health and safety, and rejected the findings of the report, which they felt did not reflect conditions at Tyson. All the same, as Licolli left Tyson’s HQ, she felt proud that, for the first time, plant workers had taken Tyson to task in its hometown. “I felt like it was the beginning of something different,” she said

A few months later, on 11 May 2016, Oxfam released its own report, which claimed that Tyson chicken processors were so afraid of being fired if they failed to hit their quota on the production line that they dared not take bathroom breaks. Workers had come up with a job-saving innovation – wearing adult diapers, urinating and even defecating as they worked the line, rather than fall behind.

The bathroom-breaks scandal made the news across the US, and internationally. A response on Tyson’s website expressed concern about “these anonymous claims” in the Oxfam report, saying that “while we currently have no evidence they’re true”, they would check that company policy on breaks was being followed.

For Licolli, the Oxfam report was a great leap forward. “It felt like a relief for them to have our back,” she recalls. “We were stronger in that moment than ever before.” The same day, in coordination with Oxfam, Licolli delivered 150,000 signatures wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam trays, like chicken breasts, to Tyson’s headquarters. In response, Tyson issued a press release that struck an accommodating tone: “We’ve told them that while we believe we’re a caring, responsible company, we’re always willing to consider ways we can do better.”

Over the following months, falling food prices brought a slump in profits. Tyson replaced its CEO, and in April 2017, under new leadership, made some changes to working conditions, in consultation with Oxfam. But when Licolli read Tyson’s statement on the new commitments, her heart sank. There were pledges to improve safety and rates of pay, but to Licolli, it was all very vague. “There was nothing explicit,” she told me. “No ‘we are going to do this by this time’ … it was just empty. Workers would have no oversight or say in anything.” Moreover, there was no mention of bathroom breaks.

While Oxfam hailed the agreement as a “big win” on worker rights, Licolli felt betrayed. The charity had relied heavily for its research on her connections with poultry workers in town, but Licolli felt that at a certain point, she and the workers’ delegates had been left out of the discussion. “It was just like Tyson and Oxfam getting together and shaking hands and saying: ‘Good for you, good for me, let’s say you are a good company,’” Licolli told me. She reluctantly agreed to Oxfam’s request to issue a statement. “I do think the company wants to change, but we’re also very cautious,” she wrote.

When we approached Oxfam for comment, the charity said in a statement: “Since the beginning of Oxfam’s poultry campaign in 2015, we have focused on elevating the voices of poultry workers and advocating for worker rights and safe working conditions for front-line processing workers … In non-union plants [including Berry Street], Oxfam has urged, and continues to do so, that Tyson includes workers in review and monitoring of its commitments to a better workplace.”

But Licolli’s caution turned out to be prescient. The workers were soon fighting a dangerous new threat to their health.

After the slowdown of 2017, Tyson and the rest of the poultry industry wasted no time trying to turbo-charge chicken production. That meant resuming an old battle over production line speeds. In the last half century, poultry processors have increased line speeds from less than 100 birds per minute to 140 – the legal maximum established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Even at that rate, according to the US Government Accountability Office, workers risked injury and pain, but chicken factories were lobbying aggressively to get slaughter and evisceration lines moving faster.

In late December 2017, Licolli travelled to Washington DC with injured workers, including Sophia, to challenge the line-speed proposals, and met with officials at the USDA. For Sophia, it was a revelation. “I had a voice for the first time,” she recalls. Working with Licolli she had found friendship and the courage to tell her story. The following month, in a surprise move, the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA accepted their arguments and those of other workers’ right groups, and turned down the request to speed up chicken processing lines.

A Tyson Poultry truck at a processing plant in Texas in 2004.

But the next battle followed quickly. The meat and poultry industry had begun using a new weapon against bacteria in greater volumes. Peracetic acid – an antimicrobial developed for sterilising medical equipment – was found, if sprayed on carcasses, to reliably kill bacteria without leaving residue, which meant the whole process could be sped up. But, while safe for consumers, research has shown that it may carry health risks for workers. Long exposure has been shown to cause eye, skin and nose irritations to medical workers, as well as asthma.

In 2017, Tyson announced plans to stop feeding human antibiotics to chickens, and began relying more heavily on antimicrobials. Jenny Leigh Houlroyd, a certified industrial hygienist and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, has been studying the use of peracetic acid in the poultry industry for years, and worries that a disaster may be slowly unfolding inside the lungs of workers. In 2018 she led a team of researchers in a pilot study of peracetic acid at four chicken plants in Georgia. During her time in the plants, workers told her about eye irritation, sore throats, headaches and sinus infections. The use of peracetic acid has been approved by the USDA and there is still no legal limit on exposure levels. With 250,000 poultry workers in the US exposed to peracetic acid, Houlroyd adds: “The industry needs to be listening to their workers. In the absence of definitive data, that is where you have to go. You have to listen to workers.”

On a warm Tuesday evening in October 2019, not far from the Berry Street plant, Sophia was among two dozen or so women rearranging folding chairs into a semi-circle inside a one-room church on a Springfield strip mall. Like Sophia, the women were Latina immigrants, all of whom have worked low-wage jobs in the city’s chicken plants.

“Nothing has changed,” Sophia said. “Oxfam sold us out.” Her voice, once strong and clear, was thin and soft, barely above a whisper, and punctuated by fits of coughing.

The women had begun meeting quietly together for some time. The Oxfam agreement had created a major rift within what, at the time, was a growing movement among poultry workers. With little change in their daily working conditions, these women felt betrayed. They decided they wouldn’t rely on outsiders to negotiate for them any more.

The previous year, Licolli, along with Sophia and other workers, had made two visits down to Immokalee, Florida, known as the nation’s tomato capital, where a worker-led movement had transformed the conditions and wages for field workers, mostly poor immigrants from Latin America. The trip had been transformative for Sophia, who told me it gave her hope, for the first time, that they could bring about change within a company as powerful as Tyson.

The Florida campaign had put workers’ voices at the centre of the conversation with the brands who sourced their tomatoes in Immokalee. Licolli wondered if she could bring that model to the poultry industry. Instead of protesting, they would bring their fight to the household brands that buy Tyson chicken, such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kroger and Chick-fil-A, Licolli said, “by alerting consumers to the injustice behind their favourite foods”. But in January 2019, when Licolli brought those ideas to the board of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, they were rejected. “I was called a radical. And it’s not that I am an extremist,” she recalled. “But even the minimum effort of organising, it has to be radical. There is no sugar-coating our message for people to feel comfortable working with us.”

The clash over appropriate action proved irreparable, and in March, Licolli was dismissed as director of the centre. Subsequently, dozens of women, including Sophia, left. A few months later, the centre shut down. It had taken months for the women’s campaign to get going again, but here they were, with their folding chairs and a new banner with a crowing rooster on it. “Because we are fighters,” Licolli explained, as she went to work hanging it on the wall. On the banner was the name of their new labour organisation, Venceremos – meaning “we will win”. The women spent the evening planning the public launch of the new organisation, and shared their concerns about how they would overcome the fear other workers had about organising.

A few days later, Licolli drove up to a Springdale shopping centre for the official launch of Venceremos, where poultry workers were already waiting, having finished their day shifts at the nearby plants. She pinned up her rooster banner. The showing was better than she had hoped. Before she started, she asked all plant workers to raise their hands, and asked no one to post photos on social media from the event, fearing that Tyson might target them for retaliation. A reporter from Univision Arkansas came by, and a three-worker delegation arrived from Immokalee, including Gerardo Reyes Chavez. He believes the new workers’ movement has potential. “Despite all the circumstances they’ve had to confront,” he said, “they are really strong people, and they are trying to leave the world a better place than how the world has treated them.”

In January, workers noted increased shipments of peracetic acid to the Berry Street plant. Many workers were experiencing coughing, nose irritation and breathing problems. In mid-February, a group of 16 Venceremos workers walked into the office of a supervisor to tell them about the symptoms they were experiencing. The supervisor dismissed the idea that the chemicals were causing the symptoms, saying they sounded like the flu. However, he agreed to improve ventilation in the plant. Tyson said all employees working with chemicals were required to have training, maintain personal protective equipment, and were “instructed to report any irritations immediately to their manager”.

In mid-March, with the number of Covid-19 cases rising across Arkansas, Sophia, like hundreds of other workers at the Berry Street plant, was given “essential employee verification” papers and told to keep them with her at all times. Sophia was deemed one of the nation’s “essential critical infrastructure” workers. She would be exempt from curfews, shelter-in-place orders and other mobility restrictions, so she might “provide services essential to the production of food”.

Five days a week, Sophia kept going to work on the evisceration line. Some days she woke up and felt the phantom balloon in her chest. She went to work anyway, fearful of losing a day’s pay. When we spoke in March, she said there was no way to practise social distancing at the plant.

“We are all standing close together all the time. I’m afraid. It’s not only about the line. When we finish our shift, or we come in to start, we all come in together through the same doors. If one of us gets sick, all of us get sick.”

Sophia read news reports of the virus with growing alarm. Then, after hearing rumours flying around Springdale about coronavirus spreading on processing lines, Sophia decided that, with her lungs already weakened from the chemical accident, she could not risk going to work. She stayed at home.

Workers were calling Licolli for help and advice, many of them anxious about conditions in the plants. Licolli sent out a flurry of texts and began setting up conference and video calls with other poultry workers. They put together a list of demands. Venceremos members launched an online petition demanding that Tyson, and other poultry processors in Arkansas, provide paid sick leave to workers if they were forced to self-isolate at home, for all the days they must miss. Within days, the petition had nearly 8,000 signatures.

On 13 March, Tyson had relaxed attendance policies for hourly workers: anyone who missed work due to illness from Covid-19 would not be fired or fined. On 31 March, it announced that workers would be eligible for short-term disability benefits should they fall ill. But it wouldn’t cover their full pay, only 60%. And not all plant workers qualified. Pressed on the gaps in the policy’s coverage for low-wage line workers, Tyson said in a statement: “We’ll work with them to explore ways we can help. We want to help everyone, even if they don’t have [health insurance] coverage.” The company also said: “If a team member is quarantined because they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, they receive full pay while they’re out.”

On Monday, Tyson released a short video showing the measures it had put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the Berry Street plant, including allowing for social distancing. The company said that in March, it had begun testing workers’ temperatures as they arrived for their shifts. In early April, it started distributing masks and putting up barriers between workers on the production lines.

Workers did not seem to be reassured. The offer of $500 bonuses Tyson made to workers if they turned up for every shift for three months has backfired, Licolli told me. “It only made them more angry. They are risking their lives and this was nothing compared to the risks they are taking. They are afraid they might not even get the bonuses if they end up getting sick.”

In early April, two workers at a Tyson plant in Georgia died from the virus. Tyson closed a pork plant in Iowa at the start of April after around two dozen workers tested positive for Covid-19; 186 people have now tested positive, and two people have died, presumed to be from Covid-19. Meat processing workers across the US and Canada are staging walkouts.

Licolli said the crisis was spurring what could soon become an unstoppable movement among workers. “We’re in such a crucial moment right now,” she told me this week. “There’s an urgency among poultry workers to organise and to mobilise. We’re building a stronger movement that has the potential to bring about change. For the future of the country, we must think deeply about the meaning of these workers in our daily lives and stand up for their human rights and dignity – because they’ve always been essential, and if they don’t survive, we won’t survive.”

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Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/17/chicken-factory-tyson-arkansas-food-workers-coronavirus