Meatpacking plants have become coronavirus hotspots across the U.S. In Virginia, no one’s giving workers much information.

By: - April 27, 2020 12:01 am

The Tyson processing plant in Glen Allen is one of 122 meat processing facilities in Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

As meatpacking plants across the United States become coronavirus hotspots, some Virginia poultry workers say that cases in the commonwealth’s processing facilities exceed company-provided figures and are not consistently revealed to employees.

“Word of mouth was that we have maybe 10 or more cases up there, but us employees were only told about two cases,” said Kita Davis, a wing packer at Tyson’s Temperanceville plant on the Eastern Shore. “We found out about three cases through Facebook.”

Meatpacking is big business in Virginia. In tallying up the state’s most important agricultural products, August 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service ranked broilers — the term used for chickens raised for meat rather than eggs — No. 1 and cattle and calves No. 2, which together are responsible for more than $1.3 billion in cash receipts. 

Not all of that meat ends up at Virginia facilities, but a list provided by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services includes 122 meat processing plants in the commonwealth that are inspected by the state and federal government. 

While some companies will disclose whether any cases have occurred at their plants — Cargill spokeswoman April Nelson confirmed a case at the company’s Timberville location and said there were none at its Dayton facility on April 17 — many do not, citing employee privacy concerns. 

Diana Souder, Perdue Farms’ director of corporate communications, on April 15 said there had been “a limited number of cases in our facilities” but the company had decided not to specify every individual case moving forward out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines.” 

Smithfield Foods, headquartered in Smithfield, Va., has taken a similar tack. In response to an inquiry about whether the Virginia packing plant had any confirmed cases, a spokesperson directed the Mercury to the company website, which states that “out of respect for our employees’ legal privacy, we will not confirm COVID-19 cases in our facilities.”

Tyson did not respond to two emails from the Mercury, but on Friday, the Temperanceville complex’s human resources manager, Marco Northway, announced in a post on the facility’s Facebook page that the plant would not be operating either shift that day.

“As a precautionary measure we will be performing a deep cleanse of the processing plant” on April 24, 25 and 26, the statement read. No cases were cited. 

State also mum on numbers

Privacy concerns have also dominated reporting decisions for the Virginia Department of Health.

Asked whether VDH was aware of any coronavirus cases among workers at processing facilities in the commonwealth, Marian Hunter, a spokeswoman for the department, said that per state code, “neither the name of any person reported to VDH nor the name of any person making a report shall be disclosed to the public.”

Further, she noted, because the relevant section of code defines a “person” as an “individual, corporation, partnership or other legal entity,” the department “cannot release the name of an individual, corporation, partnership or other legal entity that made a disease report.”

Jonathan Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District, also confirmed that “VDH practice is not to provide names of facilities involved in outbreaks,” although he noted, “We do strongly encourage facilities to provide messaging to their staff and the public when an outbreak occurs.”

On Friday, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver acknowledged that COVID-19 cases had been confirmed among poultry workers but said that he “can’t really say anything more.”

“The local health department, the department of agriculture, community organizations and local officials have all been in discussion with plant managers about that,” he said. “Plant management has taken measures to protect workers. We have been in discussion about other measures to make sure workers are protected.”

But several workers, some speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears they would lose their jobs, said that plant managers are not consistently informing employees about cases in their facilities.

One employee at the Perdue plant in Accomac on the Eastern Shore said workers had only been notified of one case in the facility but knew of numerous others, including a woman who she said had washed her hands next to her in the bathroom and later contracted the virus and died. 

Asked whether Perdue had a policy of notifying all employees at a facility if someone there was diagnosed with COVID-19, Souder said the company followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, including interviews and review of internal camera footage to determine who the associate may have been in “close contact” with, defined as “within six feet and longer than 10 minutes.” Potentially exposed workers were then notified and provided “guidance for conducting a risk assessment of their potential exposure using CDC guidelines.”

Workers ‘starting to organize their own game plan’

The workers who spoke with the Mercury described a scenario in which a lack of information has fueled widespread fears, increased absenteeism and an uptick in conversations about organizing.

“The workers are starting to stop listening to their management, and the workers are starting to organize their own game plan,” said an Accomac Perdue employee.

In Timberville, action has already unfolded. On April 3, more than two dozen workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride Timberville plant staged a protest outside the facility after hearing that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

“They worked us all day, they didn’t tell us, and we didn’t know how long that they known,” a worker told WHSV in the Shenandoah Valley, which broke the story. The station also reported that a Pilgrim’s Pride spokesperson declined to confirm whether there had been a case or not.

At the Perdue facility in Accomac, two employees who contacted the Mercury said some workers who weren’t actually ill have been calling in sick because they fear they can’t avoid contracting the virus inside the plant

“I’m trying to get a leave, but they said they’re not really giving out leave right now,” said one.

A Tyson Temperanceville employee described a similar situation in an email: “Due to the enormity of call outs. Whether people are sick or just avoiding the dangers in the plant I have been forced to do work I’m not even trained to do.”

Davis, who said she thinks the Temperanceville plant ought to be shut down for at least 14 days, said she hadn’t been in to work for a week. 

“I understand they can’t release the names due to patient privacy,” said Davis. “But I feel like they can have a meeting with us and say, you know, as of this date we have such and such cases in the plant.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.