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Virginia Poultry Workers See Victory In New COVID-19 Protection Rules

Hospital officials in Virginia this spring reported a spike in COVID-19 cases at the Perdue poultry processing plant in the Eastern Shore city of Accomac. Virginia has become the first state in the nation to mandate coronavirus workplace safety rules.
Steve Helber
Hospital officials in Virginia this spring reported a spike in COVID-19 cases at the Perdue poultry processing plant in the Eastern Shore city of Accomac. Virginia has become the first state in the nation to mandate coronavirus workplace safety rules.

The employees who work in the poultry plants on the Eastern Shore of Virginia are accustomed to long hours and some of the most grueling work in the country — work that has grown uniquely dangerous amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Many of these workers came to the United States from Guatemala and Mexico, and are not used to having their voices heard. That is, until this past Wednesday, when one of their demands was answered.

Virginia became the first state in the nation last week to require businesses to protect workers from the coronavirus. The state's new emergency temporary standards obligate businesses to give out personal protective equipment, mandate social distancing guidelines and put in place response plans and training for workers, among other measures. Companies risk up to $130,000 in penalties if they are found to be in violation of the guidelines.

"Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially not during a pandemic," the state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, said in a statement on Wednesday. "In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers from COVID-19, creating the nation's first enforceable workplace safety requirements."

The standards represent a rare victory for worker rights in the Trump era — in particular, for the largely Latinx poultry workers of the Eastern Shore, who helped lead a grassroots effort to push for more protections after being deemed "essential workers."

Essential workers are more likely to get COVID-19 than those who can stay at home, and the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on those who work at poultry processing plants. In May, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionreported that among about 130,000 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states, 4,913 cases and 20 deaths occurred due to "difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions."

On the Eastern Shore alone, poultry plants run by Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms have been linked to more than 260 cases of the coronavirus, Northam said last week.

For the poultry plant workers on the Eastern Shore, if they do get sick, they're likely treated at the Onley Community Health Center, a nearby clinic that is part of the Eastern Shore Rural Health system.

"We know for a fact that the poultry plants had a dramatic increase and they account for about half, if not more, than the positive tests total on the Eastern Shore," Eastern Shore Rural Health System CEO Nancy Stern said.

Advocates say that before the new safety guidelines were announced, companies had few safety precautions at all — no masks or temperature checks, no training or information on the pandemic and no way of tracking who was sick — despite the fact that poultry workers work closely together, which makes it difficult to socially distance on the line. Moreover, the workers are largely Latinx, a community that is four times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to contract COVID-19, according to the CDC.

In a statement, Tyson Foods said it has "consistently met or exceeded" guidance from both the CDC and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "on which the Virginia standard seems to be based."

Officials for Perdue said that the company has "instituted extensive incremental safety measures" at its processing facility on the Eastern Shore, including "additional sanitation, enforcement of social distancing where possible, installation of temporary partitions where social distancing isn't possible, temperature checks and mask wearing for everyone entering our buildings." Since then, they said infections have decreased.

Activists have called such protections long overdue, and are cheering Virginia's new mandates, which they say have a chance to protect workers across the state.

Jason Yarashes, who heads the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers for the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that the passing of the new standards was "incredible" because it was it not only focused on the most vulnerable communities, but was also driven by their activism.

"What happened here was those workers spoke up and against all the odds, passed the standard and now have protections not just for themselves, but for all the workers throughout the Commonwealth," Yarashes said. "So flipping that narrative."

Yarashes said much of the work was done at the hands of "coalition leaders, workers [and] labor advocates" who were trying to find a creative solution to a difficult problem. But he said that kind of community organizing is difficult to do in midst of a national pandemic, which made the success of the movement all the more exciting. He said about 50 cars full of people came out during one demonstration.

One of the people who demonstrated is a former poultry worker and community organizer who asked to be identified only as H because she is undocumented. She said she was surprised by how people came together.

"It's the first time you see people from different ethnicities join together like this," she said in Spanish. "It was hard, with the Latino community to get them involved because they don't want to draw attention to themselves because so many are undocumented."

She said she knew two people who died after getting COVID-19 from poultry plants. Although there are still plenty of open questions about the new standards, including how rigorously they'll be enforced, she said they make her hopeful nonetheless.

Through speaking out and fighting for their rights, she said, things can change for Latinx workers in this country, given that they make up such a large swath of essential workers.

"They are the people who bring the food to your house, thanks to them you can sit at your table and eat," she said. And she says we should take care of them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.