This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA TODAY Network and is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Maria Romero’s phone rang one day in June with the terrifying sound of her mother gasping for air.
The 59-year-old Arkansas poultry plant worker struggled in a weakened whisper to tell her daughter she’d been rushed to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Romero could barely understand the words, but she knew her mother was frightened and confused.
“She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know what was going on,” Romero, 36, said. “I could sense that she was scared.”
Romero’s mother, who asked that her identity be protected for fear of losing her job, is among at least 4,627 Arkansas poultry workers to have been infected by the novel coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
More than half of them, like Romero’s mother, are Hispanic.
Americans rely on low-wage workers to produce a steady supply of beef, pork and poultry. But as the coronavirus sweeps through meatpacking plants across the country, minorities like her have disproportionately borne the brunt of the disease’s spread.
Hispanics, Black people and recent immigrants staff eight out of every 10 of the nation’s frontline meatpacking jobs, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found.
And they now account for 90% of the country’s meatpacking-related coronavirus cases, based on a 21-state analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of them are Hispanic.
Nowhere is that more evident than Arkansas, the second largest poultry producing state by weight in the nation. Unlike many other states with large outbreaks in meatpacking plants, Arkansas collects coronavirus case count data for the meatpacking industry by race and ethnicity.
That data, obtained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA TODAY, shows Latinos accounting for 33% of all poultry workers in Arkansas, but roughly half of all COVID-19 cases in poultry plants.
The news outlets asked for the same data from several other states with large outbreaks at meatpacking plants, including Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. The states said they didn’t maintain it.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA TODAY spent two months interviewing workers, plant officials and health experts about the disproportionate rate of minority infection among meatpackers. They also examined hundreds of pages of government records and reports as part of this story, which was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Even before the pandemic, these employees faced long hours in dangerous conditions for meager pay. For years, the federal government has detailed the industry’s systemic problems while doing little to correct them.
But now, with a deadly virus plaguing these plants, the government has taken an even more hands-off approach to worker safety. The Trump administration in late April provided guidance on how to safeguard plants from the pandemic, but stopped short of mandating or enforcing the measures.
Even as case numbers in poultry plants soared, pleas from workers and activists for basic safety measures were met with months of inaction and indifference from the government and meatpacking companies.
In northwest Arkansas, the heart of the state’s poultry industry, a CDC investigation found widespread transmission of the disease and faulted the state government for the disproportionate impact on the Latino and Pacific Islander communities.
Jennifer Dillaha, state epidemiologist with the Arkansas Department of Health, said the state is trying to implement as many of the CDC’s recommendations as possible and recently contracted two companies to conduct contact tracing.
But with limited government oversight of COVID-19 safety measures in plants, churning out packages of chicken breasts and nuggets has come at the expense of workers’ lives, workers and advocates said.
“This is a nationwide, multi-company problem. The meatpacking plants were not prepared for this epidemic,” League of United Latin American Citizens president Domingo Garcia said. “There was a failure early on from the management and owners of the five major meatpacking players to respond to it as fast as they could, and it did cost lives.”
Spokesmen for two of the largest meatpacking operations in the country told reporters they’re taking every precaution to protect workers by implementing safety measures like temperature checks and plastic workstation barriers.
Derek Burleson at Tyson, which operates 20 poultry plants in Arkansas, said the company’s first priority is the health and safety of workers and the community. He said the company has implemented a variety of safety measures and done large-scale testing of its Arkansas workers.
Cameron Bruett of JBS, which operates one plant in the state, provided a similar statement.
“We are doing everything we can to provide a safe working environment for our team members who are producing food for the country during these unprecedented times,” Bruett said.
Such measures did not prevent Romero’s mother from falling ill. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA TODAY is not naming the plant where she works to protect her identity. But state records show her facility has hundreds of COVID-19 cases.
The day her mother was hospitalized, Romero was so busy interpreting her mother’s Spanish and fielding calls from anxious relatives that she didn’t cry until after she put her children to bed.
Then, she said, she broke down in tears and begged God to keep her mother alive. She hadn’t asked God for anything in four years — since the day she found out she was pregnant with twins. She promised then not to ask for another favor. Now as relatives across the country prayed the rosary for her mother, Romero sank to her knees too.
“Don’t do this. I need her,” she recalled having said while praying. “I need her to make it through. I need her to have recovery so we can hang out again and live this life that you have for us.”
“People coming in sick to work”
Arkansas has deep roots in the poultry industry dating back to the late 1800s with the formation of the Arkansas Poultry Breeders association and is home today to one of the largest poultry producing companies in the U.S. – Tyson Foods, based in Springdale.
The state has nearly 6,000 poultry producing farms and more than 60 poultry processing plants that collectively employ some 40,000 workers. About a third of them are Latino. More than one in five are Black or Asian.
As of mid-August, 30 Arkansas poultry plants have had outbreaks, according to state data. At least seven have now seen hundreds of employees test positive for COVID-19.
Yet despite calls from workers to temporarily shut down plants for deep cleaning, the state hasn’t ordered any plant closures. Tyson, the largest chicken processing company in the U.S., hasn’t idled any of its facilities in the state. It instead implemented a series of measures like installing dividers between workers, providing masks to employees and designating monitors to enforce social distancing. The company has also announced it will test some employees for COVID-19 weekly.
Although its spokesperson, Burleson, said the company meets or exceeds CDC safety guidelines, workers’ rights groups filed a civil rights complaint in early July against the two largest meatpacking companies in the U.S., saying the companies’ lax safety measures during the pandemic disproportionately exposed minority workers to COVID-19 and amounted to racial discrimination.
Alfredo, a 37-year-old machine operator in a Tyson poultry plant, said he has seen firsthand how the company responded to the coronavirus outbreak. He deemed it insufficient.
A Mexican immigrant, Alfredo said he and other workers often can’t afford to stay home when sick and are pressured by their supervisors to return to work. He asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of being fired.
“There are people coming in sick to work,” he said through an interpreter.
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report also noted a reluctance on the part of undocumented and immigrant workers to report sickness and injuries.
Alfredo’s elderly parents tested positive for COVID-19 and believe they contracted the disease through their jobs at poultry plants. His children cried as his parents broke the news to them, convinced their grandparents would die.
“It's really overwhelming,” he said.
Less than two weeks after his mother tested positive for COVID-19, the Tyson plant where she worked called her multiple times urging her to return to the production line, he said. His mother, still coughing and running a fever, refused to work until she tested negative.
Burleson, the Tyson spokesman, said employees are not allowed to work if they show symptoms.
“If the team member tests positive, they receive paid leave during the quarantine period required by the CDC and may return to work only when they have met the criteria established by the CDC and Tyson,” he said.
However, Alfredo said Tyson workers aren’t paid to self-quarantine unless a company doctor sends them home or they receive a positive COVID-19 test. Workers and activists have said employees are usually cleared to work as long as they don’t have a fever.
Workers who have come in contact with someone who tested positive do not have to self-quarantine and can keep working as long as they have no symptoms, Dillaha, the state epidemiologist, said.
Poultry activists have said employees are expected to work even if they were exposed to someone with COVID-19, a concern when the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people.
Workers are often reluctant to admit they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms, said Lorena Quiroz, founder of the Mississippi-based Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity.
“They will go into work if they're asymptomatic because they're fearing they're going to get fired or the community is going to treat them differently or even affect their immigration status,” she said.
About 91% of Arkansas poultry workers lack paid sick leave, and two-thirds reported working while sick before the pandemic began, according to a study led by the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. For poultry workers, staying home can mean losing weeks’ worth of pay or even their jobs.
“The company is exposing them to get sick, and they don't care for their health or lives,” Magaly Licolli, founder of the Northwest Arkansas-based poultry workers’ rights group, Venceremos, said.
More than 120 social justice groups including Venceremos launched a week of action demanding that Tyson offer paid sick leave, slow line speeds and provide regular testing for workers. For months, Venceremos has held protests and circulated petitions calling for the shutdown of Arkansas plants with COVID-19 cases.
“It is clear that the main reason workers feel compelled to go to work when they're sick is that they don't have access to paid sick leave,” said Angela Stuesse, anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book “Scratching out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.”
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that guaranteed paid sick leave for employees with COVID-19 excluded companies with more than 500 employees, meaning the handful of large companies that dominate the meatpacking industry are exempt from the requirement.
Undocumented immigrants and their families have so far been excluded from receiving assistance from the federal stimulus package intended to reduce the financial pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Vox.
“We need our immigrants who feel symptoms to not work, and many of them don't have that option because they don't have access to safety net programs and they were left out of the economic stimulus,” said Mireya Reith, the executive director of the immigrant rights group, Arkansas United.
“I don’t feel safe”
After 10 days in the hospital, Romero’s mother returned home lightheaded, achy and fatigued. Facing a looming medical bill, she returned to her job at the poultry plant that provides some of the only work left in her rural town, where she loads uncooked chicken into plastic foam trays and onto a conveyor belt, the mother said.
A doctor’s note has put her on light duty — a result of lingering weakness from her bout with the virus as well as the searing back and shoulder pain she accumulated from 13 years of repetitive movement on the production line. Now, she lifts three pounds at a time instead of seven.
Although her plant has installed plastic barriers between workers and increased the distance between employees, she worries about getting sick again when workers crowd together in the cafeteria and as they stream out of the plant, Romero’s mother said.
Romero wonders if her mother’s body could endure another fight with the virus. In a plant where hundreds of workers have contracted the virus, her mother makes around $11 an hour and has received no hazard pay, she said.
Meanwhile, at the Tyson plant, Alfredo works shoulder-to-shoulder with other employees, separated from them by a thin plastic sheet or nothing at all, he said. Although workers have their temperatures checked and are given masks and face shields, they are crowded together when they clock in, change clothes and use the bathroom.
The plant installed a handful of hand sanitizer stations, but Alfredo said it doesn’t clean or disinfect inside, even as an increasing number of workers test positive. He worries that the virus lingers on the machinery, common spaces and in the air, alongside the tangy smell of rotting meat.
“I don't feel safe,” he said. “I always feel nervous when I'm there and afraid of working because they never closed the plant to disinfect or to clean. The virus is still inside.”
He works six days a week, nine hours a day grinding blocks of frozen chicken into a pulp used to make chicken nuggets. By the end of the day, his mask is damp with sweat. He rubs hand sanitizer over his face and hands and strips his clothes onto the lawn before walking into his home.
“What I'm worried about the most is one day I will go to work, and then I will get sick and eventually I will get my kids, my family, all sick,” he said.
The meatpacking industry has been notorious for low pay, high injury rates and few benefits. Now during a pandemic, Alfredo said it’s become more clear how much the industry ignores worker safety. As workers emptied out of the plant by testing positive, self-quarantining or simply leaving, working mandatory overtime exhausts him, he said. He said his children won’t work in poultry like their parents and grandparents.
He knows workers who have gotten sick and two that have died, some of whom came from the same small town in Mexico where Alfredo was born.
“Instead of getting better, it’s just gotten worse,” he said. “I feel impotent for not being able to help. The only thing that I can do is pray for them.”
Frank Hernandez of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this story.