Alfredo has worked at a Chick-N-Quick plant, which is owned by Tyson Foods, in Rogers, Arkansas, for the past three years. He’s worked for Tyson for the past 10. He asked to only be identified with his first name to protect his livelihood. When he spoke to the Midwest Center last summer, he was not confident in the plant’s handling of the pandemic. There have been at least 100 workers infected at the plant. The interview was conducted in Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity. The company’s response is included below.
As told to Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Agricultural Data Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The pandemic was not good for us because we have been exposed daily to getting sick. And it’s not easy working among infected people. And it’s not easy watching your coworkers get sick and die because you think you are next.
To be honest it’s sad because a lot of people, whether men or women, were left widowed. It’s common that a lot of couples work together at these plants. It’s sad because the company didn’t care at all to help widows economically but especially mentally. They didn’t help them at all emotionally because after they come back to work they look destroyed, they look sore after what they’ve suffered being in the hospital with their spouse.
And the company acts like nothing happened. It’s like we are disposable. That’s what we are to the company because if you get sick and die, it doesn’t matter. In the end, there are more people who want to work there and it’s easy for the company to replace us.
They gave us masks around May. And by May, there were already a lot of infected people inside. So they started with masks and they weren’t even medical masks, or professional masks, they were cloth masks. Like a handkerchief. We used those for around two weeks and then they started giving us medical masks.
I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do — if I should go or stay at home. But I decided to go to work because the company was very harsh to us when the pandemic started. They told us, “Anyone who’s afraid of the pandemic and doesn’t want to work, it’s okay, you can stay at home as long as you need, but we are not paying you.” So they put us in that position. And what are you going to do if you don’t work? We have to pay rent, bills and food. People had no other choice but to go to work despite the risk we were running.
Things actually got worse (over the year of the pandemic). They got worse because they did everything they said. They kept their word of not helping us, of not doing anything. And then when more and more people started getting sick and they had to quarantine, the company started running out of people, and the few that were left had to do the job of everyone who was missing.
We were all doing double work with a lot of pressure, we had to deliver in any way possible. Speed lines were increased, production increased, and working days also increased. Lately, we have been working Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays. [Editor’s note: Tyson Foods said in a statement, “The safety of our team members always comes first. There have been times when production lines have slowed to promote worker health and safety.”]
Once in a while (before the pandemic), we worked one Saturday per month. But since the pandemic, it’s every Saturday and since two months ago, we work Sundays, too.
(When his line doesn’t meet production goals,) they ask us why are we slower than other lines? They ask us why are we not reaching the production while other lines are.
For example, in my line, if one day we don’t get to the order amount, around 50,000 pounds per shift per line, they ask us “What’s happening? The first shift finished but why didn’t you?” So that’s how they are pressuring us.
Sometimes we can’t reach the production because we don’t have all the appropriate tools. There are no people. Sometimes other shifts are full but mine is missing people. How are we going to hit the production targets? It’s hard, you can’t say “no.” Because if you say “no” it’s like signing your dismissal.
Whether it’s something good or bad that they are telling you you have to say “yes, it’s okay,” because if you say “no” they take you to HR where they ask you why you are saying “no” to something the company is demanding of you.
When it’s about my rights, the company doesn’t listen. But, when it’s about company rights, then we all have to sign a list of the things they are asking. But if we ask for something? They tell us there’s no time, no translator or anything else, but they never listen.
I am a person who’s fought hard for workers’ rights, for all my coworkers. I’ve had several arguments with managers and they’ve never been able to fire me because in all those arguments I had evidence and I was correct. Otherwise, I would have already been fired.
Thank God I have not been infected. From my line of about 15 to 20 workers, everyone except me and two or three others got infected. And from other lines too, most people had the virus and about 3 died.
(If I got COVID-19,) to start, I would stay at home. And if the company wants me to get to work I wouldn’t go for my safety and that of my coworkers. Because at the company, when a person gets infected and doesn’t have any symptoms, it’s okay for them to keep working. That’s what they told me because one of my coworkers, the line leader, tested positive and he was close to me.
So I went to the managers and asked what they would do since I had a close contact with that person and they told me I could get back to work. I told them, “Look, I am not going to risk getting infected and transmitting it to my coworkers. If you don’t put me in quarantine today, tomorrow I am going to an outside clinic to get tested and then they will put me in quarantine whether you like it or not.” That’s how the company agreed to quarantine me.
I did get paid but (only) because I defended myself, otherwise they wouldn’t have told me I was in close contact with a person that tested positive. I went there because I noticed it. They would not even have mentioned it. Human resources and a manager asked me if I had any symptoms, and when I told them I didn’t, they said, “Then you can go back to work.” And I told them, “I can but I am not going to risk having the virus and transmitting it to more people.” [Editor’s note: Alfredo provided an audio recording of this interaction to confirm it occurred. In a statement, Tyson Foods said, “Our policy is that team members should not come to work if they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has the virus but rather should stay home and focus on getting better—and we continue to communicate this regularly to all team members.”]
(When we arrive at work,) there is a temperature scanner. People that go with a high temperature get tested again with a different scanner, like a pistol that has a laser. But they never send those people back home if they have a high temperature. They simply ask them if they have any symptoms and then let them through if they are feeling okay.
Once you get inside there is no social distancing, the dining room is very small. People who are coming in mix with people finishing their shift, so you have people from both shifts in a small area. The area where we clock in is a narrow hallway filled with people. Then we go to the area where all the protective equipment is— hairnet, gloves, coat, apron. That area is also small, filled with people only wearing a mask and hand sanitizer that the company put there. Then we go into the production area and everyone is on their own. You have to take care of yourself however you can because you don’t know who’s infected and who’s not because the company doesn’t tell us.
If you ask the health department how many infections there are in that company they tell you there aren’t any cases. So there are two things there. Either that the health department is covering for the company, or the company is not reporting to the health department. How is it possible that they say there aren’t any cases even though there are still a lot of infected people?
You can’t even call it labor abuse anymore, it’s like labor exploitation because they removed the people. Where there were two people now there’s only one. They don’t want to raise our wages, not even while working in a pandemic. They haven’t given us bonuses, a raise to be at the frontline. According to them, we are essential but I don’t understand why they say it if we are not.