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Poultry workers feel unprotected from COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Poultry workers say the companies they work for aren't doing enough to protect them against COVID-19.
Poultry workers say the companies they work for aren't doing enough to protect them against COVID-19. (April L Brown/AP)

Here on the Delmarva Peninsula, we have 10 chicken plants within a 75-mile radius. My cousin, a poultry plant worker, died of COVID-19. My mother and I have both been infected and thankfully recovered, but my mother’s life has been altered forever and our struggles are not over. Our communities continue to be at extreme risk, and yet the poultry industry lags so far behind in protecting its workers.

Other “essential” industries stepped up when COVID-19 hit the U.S. Visit a grocery store today, and you’ll see plenty of new safeguards for workers and customers. Local workers report that you won’t see the same at a poultry plant. Workers are still standing shoulder-to-shoulder, crowded into break rooms and reporting to work while feeling ill.

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I want to say to the poultry industry that it is not too late to save lives. Companies have the responsibility to implement effective measures now to stop the spread and protect public health.

In the race to keep up production during the pandemic, the industry has been cutting corners, disregarding safety recommendations and keeping workers in the dark. The result is that poultry and meat plants are hot spots for COVID-19 in the U.S., including here in Maryland. Thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and a dark shadow on communities of hard-working families. One estimate from July is that among workers across the country there have been roughly 57,782 confirmed coronavirus cases and 248 who have died.

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This is not surprising. A poultry plant provides an optimal environment for rapid transmission of the virus: people stand close together for hours in poorly ventilated air that is cold and humid, with limited access to sanitation facilities or proper protective equipment. Crowded break rooms and simultaneous bathroom breaks add to the physical crush.

Moreover, industry employment practices lay the groundwork for community transmission. Low wages (roughly $12 an hour) translate to crowded housing, shared transportation, poor nutrition and poor health care. Most importantly, perhaps, poultry workers have little if any access to paid sick leave, except for those who belong to unions, which is roughly a third of the workforce. Few workers can afford to stay home and lose a day’s pay — even if they feel ill. In addition, some companies impose a penalty if a worker misses a shift.

While all this should compel the industry to take the virus more seriously — and to implement more safety protocols — the reality has been far different. Even when some plants took some steps, they have, in recent weeks, begun to rescind those measures. Workers report that they feel more exposed and vulnerable than ever.

There is clear consensus as to baseline measures that would safeguard workers. The CDC has issued guidelines, but workers report little effort to implement these important measures.

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Poultry companies need to:

  • Provide paid sick leave to workers (not contingent upon proof of positive a COVID-19 test).
  • Implement social distancing guidelines at plants, especially on the processing line.
  • Communicate with workers and the community and report incidents of infection and death.
  • Provide safety information in appropriate languages.

Sadly, it is not too late as we are still in the middle of this terrible pandemic. After a moment of hope in June, the U.S. is again witnessing a steady climb of cases.

While this is tragic, it also opens a window of opportunity. Employers can review the past months, assess where they are failing, and begin to take responsibility and do what’s necessary to contain the spread and protect workers and communities.

The poultry industry, well into the seventh month of the pandemic, continues to be committed to business as usual. The industry continues to seek waivers to maximum line speed rules — at a time when it should be providing distance on those very lines.

It is well past time for the industry to recognize that COVID-19 has changed the landscape around our food system; and that it needs to change practices to keep up with the deadly nature of a persistent threat. While the industry got away with mistreating workers for years, that pattern is now extracting a terrible toll.

For decades, the poultry industry in the U.S. treated workers as disposable in the pursuit of cheap, plentiful chicken. Poultry workers have long struggled to survive on low wages, endured high rates of injury and illness, and labored in a climate of fear.

In 2020, that formula has become deadly. Working in a poultry plant today, in the face of COVID-19, means literally putting your life on the line.

The industry can, and must, do better. For workers, and for all of us in the community.

Habacuc Petion (rebirth4hope@gmail.com) is executive director of Rebirth Inc. in Salisbury.

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