Poultry plant workers grow more concerned about COVID-19 exposure

Updated: Apr. 20, 2020 at 7:04 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - WLBT has been contacted by several poultry workers who say they have been exposed to the coronavirus by workers who tested positive.

These employees say not enough is being done to keep them safe.

One poultry processing corporation shares steps they are taking maintain safety at its plants.

“They are afraid to miss work,” said Mack Epps. “They’re afraid they’re gonna get in trouble”.

Epps doesn’t work at a poultry processing plant but has relatives and friends who do.

He said one worker was told to go home after riding with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

Then they were told to return to work without being tested negative for the virus.

"I don't feel like it's a lot of concern for the workers," said Epps. "I feel that it's a big corporation more concerned about bottom line productivity versus concern for the actual people that work there and taking all the measures".

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of poultry processing workers across the south, condemned the industry for its slow response to COVID-19.

RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum issued this statement.

"Our union members are heros. They are feeding America during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they need to be protected. The poultry industry’s response is too little too late for our members. Day after day we hear reports of our members contracting the COVID-19 virus and even succumbing to it. We won’t stand for that and neither should the giants of the poultry industry.

"We are in the middle of a pandemic. The poultry industry can and must do better to swiftly protect workers. It is outrageous that managers have had masks and other protective equipment for weeks while workers, who work elbow to elbow every day, don't.

“Saying you are still scrambling for protective supplies when much of the supply chain has been protecting workers for weeks is a pathetic excuse for companies that make billions in profits annually. Our food processing members are the backbone of the supply chain in this country; and cramming them into poultry facilities with no protection is a death march, and it’s inexcusable”.

“The Department of Health is monitoring every singe case, and so they will be monitoring any potential outbreak within a food processing facility,” said Governor Tate Reeves.

"Although we don't know for certain yet, a lot of it seems like it is community acquired cases," said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs. "But then we have to be very vigilant. Once it does get into a place where there's a lot of folks and that's why it's so important to be compliant with this isolation or quarantine piece because we don't want it to spread within these facilities".

We reached out to area poultry plants.

Tyson Foods spokesman Worth Sparkman released this statement.

"Our workplace safety efforts are significant and strictly enforced. We’re implementing social distancing in our plants based on CDC and industry guidance, such as increasing the distance between workers on the production floor, installing workstation dividers and barriers in our breakrooms (example photos are attached). We’ve been evaluating and implementing ways to promote more social distancing in our plants.

Our plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety, and we have significantly stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas to protect our team members. As an added precaution, we may sometimes suspend a day of production to complete an additional deep clean of facilities."

Peco Foods Corporate Director of Human Resources Bart Crater provided the following statement.

“Peco Foods takes all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. We have reacted swiftly to assess and address potential threats to our Team Members. Currently, all individuals entering our facilities are temperature scanned and required to wear face masks while on-site. We are also following strict sanitation and social distancing recommendations. As an industry considered essential to America’s infrastructure, we meet or exceed, all pertinent CDC guidelines. We continue to work closely with State Health Departments to ensure our Team Members’ wellness is the top priority. Peco Foods has taken all precautions necessary since the start of this pandemic to keep our Team Members and communities safe.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of poultry processing workers across the south, condemned the industry for its slow response to COVID-19.

The organization officials said the industry delays have left most workers unprotected, resulting deaths.

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