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After months of stressAmericans have been looking forward to the pre-COVID-19 joys of a (socially distant) July 4th. How about a cookout? It’s a traditional, low-key summer celebration – but amid the nation’s growing outbreak, even a simple home-cooked meal comes at an exorbitant price.
Research by BuzzFeed News shows the extent to which the virus – and the country’s inadequate response to it – has infected, made sick, and even killed workers in the country’s food supply chains while they work to keep our refrigerators full.
Take a typical summer festival: spicy ribs, a side of creamy pasta salad and a piece of freshly baked apple pie. For example, if you were shopping at a Walmart Supercenter in Massachusetts, the apples you would buy would be picked by workers in Washington state’s Yakima Valley who live in a crowded labor camp with few protective measures. The fruits would then be sorted into boxes in an Allan Bros. packing house that did not comply with the federal COVID-19 safety guidelines for weeks – even after the employees became ill.
The ribs would have been sliced and packaged by employees at a pork processing plant – like the Tyson Foods facility in Indiana, which stayed open for weeks despite the virus spreading among employees.
The noodles would have been piled up by grocers whose employers had been slow to close down for a thorough cleaning after workers fell ill, and informed the local health department and customers of the growing outbreak.
At these three workplaces alone – the Allan Bros. Packhouse in Yakima Valley, the Tyson Plant in Indiana, and the Walmart in Massachusetts – around 1,100 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to BuzzFeed News, and at least four have died based on the investigation Government documents, company notes, and interviews with approximately 50 workers, managers, local officials and workers.
Many Americans are concerned about putting themselves and the restaurant staff at risk and have turned to home cooking as a safer and more ethical option. What seems safer to consumers can nonetheless be fatal to the poorly paid, often immigrant workers that make up America’s sprawling food supply chains. Across the country, from fields to packing houses, slaughterhouses to grocery stores, businesses did not need masks, put protective barriers or organized tests until outbreaks spread among the workforce. Some workers in the chain are still not getting sick pay, forcing them to choose between spreading the virus or lacking paychecks – between feeding your family or protecting their own.
“I just want you to protect us,” Dennis Medbourn, an employee at the Tyson plant in Logansport, Indiana, where three employees he knew died from COVID-19 complications, told BuzzFeed News. “We also work long hours to make up for the lack of meat.”
A food worker, Yok Yen Lee, a door opener at Walmart in Quincy, Massachusetts, called for work until days before her death from COVID-19.
“She’s been really hardworking,” her daughter Elaine Eklund told BuzzFeed News. “She absolutely loved this job. She wanted to do this job for her whole life. “
The routes by which food find their way to Americans begin on farms and in factories in small towns and rural towns before making their way through the 50 states. The networks are closely linked, meaning that the people who live in these areas and work in these professions, along with the friends and relatives they come in contact with, bear a disproportionate share of the risk of feeding the nation . United Farm Workers vice president Erik Nicholson said an apple picker in a FirstFruits Farms orchard in the Yakima Valley caught the virus from her husband who worked at a Tyson beef factory in the area. FirstFruits did not respond to a detailed request for comment.
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Since the pandemic began, around 29,000 workers at grocery stores, meat packers and other food processing plants across the country have been infected, and at least 225 people have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. This is almost certainly an undercount: many companies have declined to order comprehensive tests, even in workplaces where employees get sick. As a result, the full extent of infections in frontline food workers may never be known.
“What makes this pandemic very clear is that some of our least-paid, marginalized and exploited workers are actually our most important,” said Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator, who co-sponsored a bill in June with fellow Senate protection officers of the country to offer. “Every plate of food reflects a disturbing reality: grocery workers – from farm workers to grocery store clerks – risk their lives every day to feed us, often in precarious conditions and far too often with starvation wages.”
“If they don’t work, they don’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they don’t eat.”
Bobby Doherty for BuzzFeed News
“If they don’t work, they don’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they don’t eat.”
April 30thAngelina Lara felt an itch in her throat.
For seven months she worked as a fruit packer for Allan Bros., one of at least 18 produce companies in the Yakima Valley, a fertile agricultural zone that rolls east across central Washington from the mighty Cascade Mountains. Lara, 48, grew up in Southern California, but moved to the city of Yakima in 2005 after relatives started working in the valley’s numerous packing houses. Around a third of local jobs are in agriculture, more than the next two industries combined. Apples are one of the main businesses in the city, and the fruit is at the center of the Yakima city seal. Central Washington accounts for 60% of the country’s apple production.
Over the years Lara has worked at numerous packing houses, including previously at Allan Bros. She returned to the company last year for a job that paid $ 13.50 an hour, more than the previously earned minimum wage of $ 12. In a squat warehouse on Highway 12 at the foot of Mount Rainier, Lara and her colleagues on the day shift washed and sorted apples that are packaged and shipped in the region year-round. Around 300 workers come in for the day shift, stand on a brisk conveyor belt about 2 feet apart, sorting apples like the organic Fuji variety sold at Walmarts nationwide, and separating spoiled or worm-infested fruit. (During the night shift, seasonal fruits such as cherries are processed.)
It’s hard, exhausting work, Lara said, and “it’s impossible to be 6 feet apart because sometimes the line moves so fast that you need someone to help you with all the apples.”
As COVID-19 spread across the state and country in March and April, Allan Bros. added plexiglass barriers to the office area where management and administrators worked. “But the same thing wasn’t brought into the camp,” said Shauri Tello, who moved to Yakima from Mexico at the age of 15 and started working in the fruit industry two years ago shortly after graduating from high school at the age of 18.
The company hadn’t started providing masks to workers, so some workers brought their own from home, according to four employees and a memo from health officials who inspected the site on May 8.
Lara didn’t immediately assume that the itch in her throat meant that she had caught the coronavirus. At the time, she didn’t know if anyone was infected at work, she said. Even so, as a precaution, she stayed home from work the next day. She developed a fever within 24 hours. Then she got difficulty breathing. Lara has asthma, but it was worse than any asthma attack she’s ever had. “I was home alone so I started to panic,” she said. At the hospital, she said she paid for the COVID-19 test herself – $ 152 – and it came out positive.
Lara told Allan Bros. that, on the doctor’s orders, she would be staying at home for two weeks and put in quarantine. She and another employee who tested positive said company officials told them their vacation would be unpaid.
She asked her supervisor to “leave [her] Employees know they can take precautionary measures, ”said Lara. “You never did. Nobody knew I was sick. “
Three of their employees confirmed that claim, saying management did not notify them of any cases at the plant in April and early May. In a statement emailed in response to questions, Allan Bros. denied not having notified employees of cases until May, but declined to indicate when it started.
Today Yakima County has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the Pacific Northwest – about 1 in 34 people. In central Washington – as in other areas such as California’s Imperial and San Joaquin valleys – agribusiness is seeing a reckoning. The methods of packaging produce and housing migrant workers, maximized for efficiency, have created the ideal conditions for a devastating virus to spread.
“When farmers were designing farmhouses and warehouses to sort fruit in, they weren’t thinking about pandemics in any way,” said Dr. Malcolm Butler, the official of the combined health district of Counties Chelan and Douglas, which is north of Yakima and is home to around 20 agricultural companies. “They built an industry and fed the world, and unfortunately social distancing is not an option. It is very challenging and extensive to convert an entire industry in the blink of an eye. “
By the end of April, the virus had spread quietly among apple pickers and packers in central Washington for weeks. The extent of the outbreak remained unknown, partly because many companies were unwilling to conduct extensive tests. But even the case numbers available at the time showed that the region’s fruit workers were facing a growing threat.
Two weeks before Lara fell ill, on April 13, three apple pickers developed a cough at Stemilt Growers Farm in Douglas County, 70 miles north of the Allan Bros. facility. This resulted in a judicial statement from Stemilt’s chief human resources officer, Zach Williams. These three were among the thousands who entered the country on a temporary work visa known as the H-2A for jobs on the region’s farms. While the packhouses are mostly manned by residents who have lived in Washington for years, the fieldwork is mostly done by seasonal workers who take buses from Mexico to performances that can last longer than six months.
Sixty-nine of these workers were housed in Stemilt’s “North District,” Williams explained. They slept on bunk beds in rooms shared with up to three others. They also shared a kitchen, laundry room, and several bathrooms. In the morning they piled up in vans, each of which took 14 of them to the orchards.
The company began implementing new procedures to protect workers from COVID-19 as early as March 13th after a worker tested positive at another Stemilt residential complex. In a memo to employees, Stemilt said that vans and public areas across the company would be redeveloped every night and throughout the day.
These measures were not enough.
While the three workers in the northern district waited for their test results in mid-April, three others in the camp showed similar symptoms. Ultimately, all six tested positive, according to Williams’ testimony. Over the next few days, Stemilt coordinated with local health officials to test all workers from the northern district camp, as well as the eight local crew leaders who had worked with them. All crew leaders tested negative, but 44 of the 69 guest workers tested positive. When Stemilt conducted another round of testing on April 22nd, nine more workers tested positive. Most of the cases were asymptomatic. Nobody was admitted to the hospital.
The state Ministry of Employment Security expects 27,000 H-2A jobs by 2020. Stemilt declined to comment on this story.
Stemilt was the exception – not in terms of the explosion of cases, but because he was looking for it in the first place. Although local officials in nearby Yakima County offered to organize free tests in all produce industry workplaces, only one fruit company, Columbia Reach Pack, had it started by the end of May, according to records from the local health department. At most of the fruit companies in the area, workers were only tested if they showed symptoms or had a confirmed case and then health authorities were called. By the third week of May, more than 300 fruit workers in the area had tested positive, and health officials identified outbreaks – a workplace infection rate of at least 5% – at seven of the county’s 18 growing companies.
Allan Bros., where Lara worked, was one of the companies that refused to test its employees. Danielle Vincent, a spokeswoman for Allan Bros., denied the county offered to test all of its workers – although other companies backed up the offer, and government documents show that local health officials were “in response to an Allan Bros. request waited ”the company“ Want[s] Employee tests. “
Although 19 of 515 employees in its packhouse had been diagnosed by May 21, the company did not plan to carry out extensive tests, according to records from the local health department. Workers had to choose whether to risk going to work and getting sick or staying home and not getting paid.
“The fear of every worker I know is that they will get infected with the virus. And if they don’t work, they don’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they don’t eat, ”said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers.
COVID-19 exacerbates longevity Beth Lyon, a law professor and founder of Cornell University’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, noted that the power disparities exist between farm workers, some of whom are undocumented, and their employers.
And while the country has deemed them “essential” during a pandemic, most farm workers can be fired at will, leaving many reluctant to advocate security measures.
This applies in particular to guest workers whose visas are directly linked to their employer. “If they stand up for health protection like masks or social distancing, they are likely to lose not only their livelihoods but also their housing,” and their permission to be in the US, Lyon told BuzzFeed News.
Local officials and farm owners attribute some of their slow responses to the pandemic to a lack of orientation at the federal level. This has led the industry to “take care of themselves,” said Butler, the Chelan-Douglas Health District officer.
“The difficulty we had was that there was absolutely no guidance on how to properly house H-2A workers,” he said.
Sean Gilbert, who heads Gilbert Orchards, said the centers for disease control and prevention’s changing position with respect to masks had kept his company puzzled. In March, orchard and packing house operators donated a few thousand N95 masks they had collected for the fire season to local hospitals when the country’s top health authority told citizens not to use masks and to keep them for health professionals. Weeks later, when the CDC changed its guidelines, these companies faced fierce competition and rising prices for face coverings as the rest of the world competed for mask supplies.
Gilbert, who runs 4,000 acres of orchards and 1,200 workers in high season, found apples to be a “labor-intensive business” with low profit margins. Due to social distancing measures, the packing house was only able to prepare 10,000 boxes of apples per shift from the end of March to the end of May, instead of the typical 12,000.
“Keeping people apart means that people can’t hand things over in a process,” he told BuzzFeed News, “and it slows the process down.” He added that protective gear and hazard payments continue to weigh on Gilbert Orchards’ economics. “COVID has fundamentally changed the way we do business.”
However, he did not see the need to allow health officials to test all of his employees. Gilbert Orchards – where at least 26 of the roughly 350 employees in its packing house, shipping, and administration departments were diagnosed – declined Yakima County’s offer to arrange testing at the facility, suggesting that its employees use the local officials’ free testing facilities instead should use had set up around the valley.
Gilbert said part of his reasoning was a fear of upsetting his employees. “I declined their offer to send a National Guard unit to quarantine our facility while they escorted people to and from test tents,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I felt that it would have been potentially traumatic to ask all employees to do this.”
When guest workers are among the most vulnerable workers in the manufacturing industry; workers who live in central Washington year round are only marginally safer.
Lara’s diagnosis, she said, left her family in a precarious financial position. Her husband, who works in the same camp, and her two sons, who work as foster assistants, tested negative, but stayed home as a precaution in case they later contracted the virus. The household of four had no paycheck for two weeks. Lara qualified for unemployment insurance because she was diagnosed and her husband and sons may be eligible for family vacation benefits – but whatever government money they received, they wouldn’t be coming in early enough to pay the bills due settle. The family used up years of savings within a few days, she said.
Back at Allan Bros., the packing house staff said the company still hadn’t been handing out masks, and as cases increased, many grew angry.
On May 7, dozens of Allan Bros. workers went on strike over conditions they believed were unsafe. In the days that followed, around 500 workers from six other fruit companies joined them. When Lara’s quarantine ended, she took a seat in the line of workers holding signs on the street and singing through brightly colored cloth masks. Local lawyers and union officials estimated the labor action was one of the largest they had seen among farm workers in Yakima, reminiscent of the marches César Chávez took part in in the county in the 1980s.
Almost every day, workers at each of the seven strike locations encountered white residents driving by and yelling at them to go back to work, said Cristina Ortega, an activist who participated in the strikes. She remembered the drivers saying things like, “If you don’t like it, get out.” On another occasion, a man yelled from his car window that he would “come back and shoot you all,” according to an incident report from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and written testimony. When MPs later caught him returning, he told them Allan Bros. “treats these people very well and they shouldn’t protest,” the incident report said. The man was arrested and charged with malicious harassment.
The backlash against the striking workers, for some, reflected longstanding opposition to Yakima’s growing Latinx population. Latinx residents made up 15% of the city’s population in 1980, 30% in 2000, and 50% in 2018. As of 2015, no Latinx candidate had been elected to office in the city after a federal judge ruled that the previous one System of the city The number of seats in the council violated the voting rights law. In 2016, a majority of the county’s residents voted for Donald Trump.
Three weeks after the strike, Lara finally got back to work. Allan Bros. had installed protective barriers in the packing house, offered a raise of $ 1 an hour and, according to Lara and three employees, started providing masks. Despite being cleared of an infection, she still has difficulty breathing and sleeps seated most nights. She said her doctor told her it could be months before she felt normal again.
She sees herself happy, she said. One of their co-workers, 60-year-old David Cruz, fell ill a few days later. His wife and daughter also tested positive, Lara said. He had worked in the factory for 12 years and had finally assembled boxes on the upper level of the warehouse. When Lara saw him during the breaks, he was “always positive and got along with everyone,” she said. On one of the last working days before the pandemic, Cruz told Lara about his plans to visit his mother in Mexico for the first time in years. “He was very happy to see her,” Lara recalled. “He planned for June or July.”
He died on May 31st. His staff raised $ 4,000 to give to his wife. The mood in the packing house has been gloomy ever since.
“Impressive. It spread very, very quickly.”
Bobby Doherty for BuzzFeed News
“Impressive. It spread very, very quickly.”
Every morning at the Tyson Pork factory in Logansport, Indiana, a low town of 18,000 people located at the intersection of three highways and surrounded by cattle ranches. The farmers deliver the pigs to the kill floor, colloquially known as the “hot side”.
There the pigs move through stables to a machine that stuns them and then onto a conveyor belt that carries them to the knife that cuts their throats. According to Dennis Medbourn, a 52-year-old worker who adjusts the speed on the machines, Tyson’s Kill Floor processes five pigs every 16 seconds on a normal day. The workers stand elbow to elbow along the production line, peel the skin of the pig, cut through the middle, remove the entrails and hang the carcass on a hook that leads it to the refrigerated “cold side” of the plant. The movements are strenuous and repetitive; To prevent injuries, ergonomic monitors – their official job title – pace up and down checking the wellbeing of workers.
An ergonomic monitor on the hot side, a 16-year-old Tyson veteran who asked for anonymity for fear of losing his job, saw some of his employees wearing cloth masks they’d brought from home in early April.
Outbreaks have occurred in meat packing plants across the country. Tyson had performed temperature checks at Logansport but hadn’t yet installed Plexiglas barriers or distributed protective equipment – even though another Tyson pork factory in Columbus Junction, Iowa, had closed on April 6 and the company was even more dependent on its other five pig slaughterhouses.
“Everyone thought Man why don’t you close our factory?Medbourn said. “You’d hear people coughing and all. People didn’t come to work more than usual.”
Tyson declined to comment on whether his Logansport facility increased production over the period, but a spokeswoman, Liz Cronston, said, “The level of production we choose to operate at our facilities depends on ensuring the safety of team members. “
The company has claimed its response to the pandemic has been faster than most of the others. Cronston noted that Tyson was looking for masks for workers even before the CDC recommended it and it was one of the first companies to proactively test all employees for COVID-19. “When we found out that a team member tested positive for the virus, we would notify staff who were in close contact,” she said. “Our priority and focus was protecting our team members and their communities.”
The ergonomic monitor tried to keep a few feet away as it looked for workers – but the long, open facility was loud with the buzz of electric saws, the rumble of conveyor belts, and the clink of metal. Sometimes he had to bend over to talk and hear, he said. He interacted with around 200 workers every day. Tyson asked employees to wear masks in mid-April.
On April 23, Tyson organized COVID-19 tests for all 2,200 of its employees in Logansport as the number of cases increased in multiple facilities.
The monitor and others on his shift stood in a large white tent in the parking lot, “all pushed together to get out of the rain,” while nurses wiped their noses, he said.
A few days later, he received a call informing him of his finding: He had COVID-19 – one of 890 Tyson employees who tested positive at Logansport by the end of April, an amazing 40% of the workforce at the plant. Like most of them, the monitor showed no symptoms at the time of diagnosis, although he did remember feeling unusually tired for the past week. He shuddered at the thought that he might have infected the people he saw every day.
“I wouldn’t have suspected it if I hadn’t been tested,” he said. “I was really freaked out. Wow. It spread very, very quickly. “
Tyson has closed its Logansport facility for two weeks from April 25th. All six pork factories had outbreaks of at least 200 cases and five were temporarily closed. At one point, four of the five largest known outbreaks in the country were in meat packing plants at sites in Tyson. To date, around 8,500 Tyson employees have tested positive, more than the company’s three largest industry competitors combined. This is based on data compiled by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
However, Tyson is not necessarily at the top of that list because its facilities are more dangerous than those of its competitors, but rather because the company is more committed to tracking how many of its employees have been infected, despite the fact that those numbers were almost guaranteed to close one Investment. Die anderen großen Fleischunternehmen – JBS, Smithfield Foods und Cargill – haben in den meisten Einrichtungen keine umfassenden Tests durchgeführt, selbst als Fleischverarbeitungsbetriebe als Inkubatoren für das Virus bekannt wurden.
“Wir glauben, dass wir unsere Erfahrungen bei der Bekämpfung dieser Pandemie unbedingt teilen müssen, da Sicherheit kein Wettbewerbsvorteil ist”, sagte Cronston, Tysons Sprecher. “Die Ergebnisse dieser Tests haben es uns ermöglicht, Teammitglieder zu finden, die das Virus haben, aber keine Symptome haben und ansonsten nicht identifiziert worden wären.”
Für Tyson, JBS, Smithfield und Cargill führt das Schließen einer Anlage zu einem Welleneffekt an beiden Enden der Versorgungsleitung. Die vier Unternehmen produzieren rund 85% des in den USA verkauften Fleisches und produzieren Schweinefleisch, Rindfleisch und Geflügel in riesigen Einrichtungen, in denen Tausende von Mitarbeitern beschäftigt sind, um die Produktionsziele zu erreichen. Die Konzentration der Fleischproduktion auf einige Dutzend Megapflanzen hat zu niedrigeren Preisen geführt, das System jedoch auch anfällig für größere Störungen gemacht, was den Druck auf die Arbeitnehmer erhöht, die Pflanzen am Laufen zu halten.
Tyson ist der größte Abnehmer für viele Landwirte im ganzen Land und einer der größten Lieferanten für viele Lebensmittel, einschließlich Walmart. Eine Betriebsschließung kann zu Lohnausfällen für Viehverkäufer zu Beginn der Kette und zu kargen Fleischregalen für Verbraucher am Ende führen. “Unsere Anlagen müssen in Betrieb bleiben”, schrieb CEO John Tyson Ende April in einer ganzseitigen Anzeige in der Washington Post und der New York Times und verwies auf die “Verantwortung des Unternehmens, unser Land zu ernähren”. Die Trump-Regierung hat diese Idee mit ihrer Verordnung vom 28. April kodifiziert, mit der Fleischverpackungsunternehmen Immunität von der gesetzlichen Haftung für kranke Arbeitnehmer gewährt wird.
Als Tyson sich auf die Wiedereröffnung des Logansport-Werks vorbereitete, teilte es den Mitarbeitern über einen automatisierten Textdienst mit, dass ab dem 6. Mai: „Wenn Sie arbeitsberechtigt sind, müssen Sie alle geplanten Stunden arbeiten, um die Garantie zu erhalten.“ Die Arbeitnehmer würden bis Ende Mai für alle Schichten einen „täglichen Show-up-Bonus“ von 30 USD erhalten, heißt es in einem anderen Text. In einem Text vom 8. Mai wurde den Mitarbeitern mitgeteilt, dass sie, wenn sie „in den letzten 72 Stunden ohne Verwendung von Medikamenten beschwerdefrei waren, können Sie dies Tyson melden“ – obwohl die Nachricht nicht die zusätzliche Empfehlung von CDC enthielt, dass die diagnostizierten Personen erst bei der Isolierung aufhören sollten mindestens 10 Tage nach Auftreten der Symptome. Ein Arbeiter, ein Lendenschneider auf der kalten Seite, sagte gegenüber BuzzFeed News, dass er erst 12 Tage nach dem positiven Test Symptome verspürte, als seine zwei Wochen bezahlte Quarantänezeit zu Ende gingen und er vorübergehend keinen Gehaltsscheck hatte, als er sich bewarb für kurzfristige Behinderung zur Deckung zusätzlicher Freizeit.
Tyson behauptet, dass seine Richtlinien klar waren: “Jedes Teammitglied, das positiv getestet wurde, bleibt krankgeschrieben, bis es die offiziellen Gesundheitsanforderungen für die Rückkehr zur Arbeit erfüllt hat”, sagte Cronston.
Einige Logansport-Mitarbeiter äußerten sich jedoch frustriert über eine private Facebook-Gruppe namens “Tyson Talk”, die ihre Bestürzung über den Plan des Unternehmens zur Wiedereröffnung zum Ausdruck brachte, obwohl fast die Hälfte der Belegschaft unter Quarantäne stand. Sie teilten auch Gesundheitsupdates; Am 5. Mai schrieb ein Gruppenmitglied auf Englisch und Spanisch, dass jemand von der Schlachtseite an dem Virus gestorben sei.
Laut örtlichen Gesundheitsbehörden und einem Gewerkschaftsverwalter im Werk sind mindestens drei Arbeiter im Werk Logansport an dem Coronavirus gestorben.
Tyson-Beamte weigerten sich, die Anzahl der verstorbenen Arbeiter zu bestätigen. “Wir sind zutiefst traurig über den Verlust eines Teammitglieds”, sagte Cronston. “Wir haben keine Nummer zum Teilen.”
Tyson lehnte es auch ab, die Anzahl der bestätigten Fälle im Werk seit den im April gemeldeten 890 zu aktualisieren. Die örtlichen Gesundheitsbehörden schätzten jedoch, dass „über 1.000“ der Arbeiter des Werks positiv getestet wurden.
Cass County, where Logansport is located, has nearly triple the rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people compared to the rate of the next highest Indiana county, and Tyson’s pork processing facility is one of the area’s largest employers. Tyson was “absolutely the hot spot” for COVID-19 in the county, said Serenity Alter, the administrator for the Cass County Health Department.
The Tyson plant reopened on May 6. The company ramped up production as quickly as its workers could return, accelerating from half-capacity to nearly full capacity within two weeks. It provided face shields, built plexiglass barriers in the cafeteria, and expanded its cleaning staff.
“All you can do is wear one of these masks and wash your hands,” a Tyson senior manager in Texas said of the risk that meatpacking workers face during the pandemic. “I gotta assume most of the people in our facility have been around or interacted with someone who was positive.”
Two months removed from the Logansport plant’s mass testing, some workers are still infected with the virus, though Tyson won’t say how many are now out sick.
“We currently have very few cases,” Cronston said. “We are aware of no positive cases of any team member currently working in our facility.”
When he returned from his quarantine, the ergonomic monitor wore a mask and kept several feet of distance from the coworkers he checked on. At the facility last month, he and others walked past a daily reminder of the cost of producing pork through the pandemic: A memorial of wreaths and photos in the common area honored the three workers who have died from the virus. It stayed up until the middle of June.
“We weren’t prepared to lose her this suddenly.”
Bobby Doherty for BuzzFeed News
“We weren’t prepared to lose her this suddenly.”
While fruit pickers and meat-packers labor out of view of consumers, grocery clerks serve at the public-facing end point of the supply chain, the final set of hands to touch your food before you do. As grocery stores became all the more critical to keeping people fed during lockdown, their safety protocols soon concerned not just the workers who spend their days there but the customers passing through.
In March, as the US declared a state of emergency, panicked shoppers flocked to supermarkets to hoard toilet paper, flour, and pasta; in stores around the country, shelves began to empty. Some lined up in the early morning for a first crack at the inventory. Many didn’t wear masks.
It didn’t take long for the virus to reach the Walmart Supercenter in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has an online inventory that includes Tyson pork ribs and Fuji apples from Rainier Fruit, Allan Bros.’ distributor. (A spokesperson for Walmart said that Tyson pork ribs are not on the store’s shelves at this time.) On April 27, the store posted on Facebook that it would close on April 30 for a single “day of deep cleaning and sanitizing” before reopening early the next morning. Some shoppers from the postindustrial city around 50 miles from Boston were horrified.
“How do you ‘deep clean’ in one day??” a commenter wrote.
But while shoppers had the option of staying away from the store, some of Walmart’s workers felt they did not. Despite the widespread testing shortages at the time, the company’s COVID-19 emergency leave policy didn’t offer additional paid time off to staffers unless they tested positive or were subject to mandatory quarantine — a policy that advocates said is too narrow as it doesn’t clearly cover workers who feel ill, are immunocompromised, or need to care for a sick relative.
By the end of April, Walmart knew that a growing number of employees in Worcester — as well as in another store in Quincy, an hour’s drive away — had contracted the virus, which was quickly spreading through the state. Although the company had released a plan detailing how they’d keep workers safe a month prior, the stores weren’t providing staffers or local public health departments with enough information about sick workers, records show.
“We have had consistent problems with Walmart,” Quincy’s health commissioner, Ruth Jones, wrote on April 28 to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. “They have a cluster of Covid cases among employees and have not been cooperative in giving us contact information or in following proper quarantine and isolation guidelines.”
Yok Yen Lee, a 69-year-old door greeter at the Quincy store, was so fearful of contracting the coronavirus that she used most of her accumulated paid time off in March and early April when case numbers in the US began to skyrocket, her daughter, Elaine Eklund, told BuzzFeed News. Shortly after Lee returned to work in mid-April, she began to feel sick but assumed she’d caught a cold from spending her eight-hour shift standing outside in near-freezing temperatures. On April 11, the Quincy Health Department contacted Walmart to inform the store that one of Lee’s coworkers had tested positive for the coronavirus. Although Walmart had waived its normal attendance policy in March, Lee continued to clock in, afraid of losing her job if she took more days off, Eklund said.
Walmart’s website says it began requiring employees to wear masks on April 17. But one current Quincy checkout employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said management told employees in April that masks weren’t necessary. Sometimes there would be 500 people in the store and no social distancing in the employee back rooms, according to the employee. “It was like corona was a myth,” they said. A Walmart spokesperson declined to comment on these specific allegations.
Lee had worked at the store for about 15 years, after emigrating from China in the 1980s and working a series of retail jobs. Colleagues described her as a joyous woman who doled out hugs and danced spontaneously but also showed a tough side when it came to dealing with rude customers.
Lee told at least one colleague, the checkout employee, that she had a slight cough. She had attempted to apply for extended leave, but found the process, which was managed by a third-party administrator, exceedingly complicated as she primarily spoke Cantonese, Eklund said. On April 19, Lee didn’t feel well at work and went home early. The next day, she had a fever and couldn’t get out of bed. Paramedics, with the help of a maintenance worker, cut the lock to her door and rushed her to a hospital, where she was intubated. Her request for extended leave from Walmart was approved on April 28, as she lay bedridden in the ICU, Eklund recalled.
She would have turned 70 last week. Instead, she died on May 3 — one of at least 22 Walmart employees killed by COVID-19 nationwide, according to United for Respect, a labor advocacy group. Lee left behind a daughter and two grandchildren, including one who was born in December.
“She never even got a real family picture with her grandson,” Eklund said. “We were starting to become a complete family. We weren’t prepared to lose her this suddenly.”
Only after Lee died did the Quincy Walmart close its doors. It soon emerged that 33 other employees there had contracted the virus.
The Worcester Walmart became one of the largest clusters in the state, with 82 employees ultimately diagnosed with COVID-19. It was also one of the largest outbreaks at any grocery retailer in the country.
By the time the store posted on Facebook about the daylong cleaning in late April, local officials were investigating the situation. Public health inspectors obtained an internal company list showing that nearly two dozen employees had tested positive for the coronavirus before the store closed, 20 within a one-week time period, Walter Bird Jr., a city spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News.
They also reviewed a photo of a sign instructing staffers to work their scheduled shifts during that April 30 cleaning: They were expected to help “clean, sanitize and stock” the store alongside a third-party cleaning service so it would be ready to open the next morning.
The city of Worcester issued a cease-and-desist order that day, “forcing the store to close immediately,” Bird said. It was the first time any US Walmart was closed by the government. The store didn’t reopen until May 5, after the company agreed to test all of the store’s nearly 400 employees.
The outbreaks in the Quincy and Worcester Walmarts were caused by “dangerous working conditions” present at other branches, as well, according to a complaint recently filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by United for Respect, which surveyed stores nationwide. The complaint claimed that Walmart didn’t provide sufficient paid sick leave to its employees, “thereby pressuring people to go to work even if they have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus.”
The complaint also alleged that Walmart didn’t enforce social distancing and had failed to quickly close stores for cleaning and disinfecting after employees were exposed or diagnosed — as was the case in Worcester and Quincy — allowing the virus to spread further among employees and the public.
All these failures violated state and federal guidance for employers, the complaint alleged.
“Communities across the country have suffered from coronavirus cases, and with more than 1.5 million associates in the United States, and stores, clubs and other facilities located within 10 miles of 90 percent of the U.S. population, Walmart is not immune to the impact of COVID-19,” said Phillip Keene, a Walmart spokesperson. The corporation has worked “to find an appropriate balance between supporting our associates and serving our customers” during the pandemic, he said, by following deep cleaning, sanitizing, and social distancing protocols guided by the CDC. Associates are given health screenings and temperature checks prior to their shifts, for example, and employees who appear ill are asked to return home. Walmart has instructed managers since March to inform associates when one of their coworkers falls ill, Keene said.
There are no laws mandating that retailers report coronavirus cases, leaving it up to stores to decide how best to handle outbreaks. In May, a delegation of state lawmakers led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, demanding more information about how the retail giant would make changes to prevent future outbreaks and protect workers.
In its response, Walmart deflected responsibility, saying it may be “impossible to track the source of anyone’s infection.”
“Walmart’s response is unacceptable,” Warren said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Nearly 100 Walmart workers in Massachusetts got sick with coronavirus and one died due to an outbreak at the store but the company refused to answer questions on what happened and what changes it is making to keep our residents safe at work.”
One recent afternoon in June, as protesters filled streets across the country, a line of masked shoppers stretched outside the Worcester Walmart as the store limited capacity to around 20% below its usual level. Shelves were stocked with pasta again, apples were piled into abundant mounds, and pork ribs lay beside long rows of fresh meat. Fruit farms, meatpacking plants, and grocery stores were open for business in every corner of America. The food supply chains kept on humming. ●
Salvador Hernandez contributed reporting to this story.