COVID-19 has carved a path of illness and death through the immigrant and refugee communities scattered across the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina whose labor keeps Tyson Foods operating and ensures a steady supply of chicken tray packs for grocery-store shelves and processed food for restaurants across the country.
COVID-19 took the life of Byakubire Mkobagwe, a 71-year-old Congolese refugee who commuted 70 miles every day from High Point to work at the sprawling chicken-processing plant in Wilkesboro, on April 30.
Mercedes, another worker at the plant operated by Tyson Foods — a multinational company responsible for 20 percent of the beef, pork and chicken production in the United States — started feeling sick the next day. (Mercedes is a pseudonym. She and another woman, identified for this story as Paula, spoke to Raw Story on condition of anonymity because they fear using their real names would cost them their jobs at Tyson.)
“I was not running a high temperature; I didn’t know if I had the virus,” Mercedes recalled, speaking in Spanish with her son translating. “I was working with a sore throat. If Tyson operated differently by providing more hand sanitizer, I wouldn’t have gotten sick. I’ve been working for Tyson for a long time. I believe Tyson was going to take care of its employees. To Tyson, you’re just a number, not a person. It’s all about the money.”
The next day, a Saturday, she went to urgent care to get tested, and the following Monday her supervisor told her to go home.
When it came to light in mid-April that five Bhutanese refugees who carpooled together from High Point had contracted the virus, Paula said, that’s when the company started taking the pandemic seriously. One of the workers was hospitalized around April 17, and a company spokesperson told Raw Story that Tyson Foods installed walkthrough touchless infrared temperature scanner systems at entrances to the Wilkesboro plant on April 18. The company also started providing masks to workers around that time.
On April 27, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed an outbreak at the Wilkesboro plant. At the time, the company said it was installing workstation dividers, and implementing deep cleaning and sanitizing procedures.
For four days, from May 6 to May 9, the company tested 2,224 employees and contractors at the Wilkesboro plant, eventually announcing that 570 tested positive. A company spokesperson said the total included 237 people who were tested by the local health department or through their own health care providers, and many of those who tested positive did not have symptoms. The outbreak sent ripples through the community, prompting one hair salon owner in Wilkesboro to post a sign announcing the business would refuse service to Tyson workers.
On May 10 and 11, Tyson temporarily halted production at its fresh plant in Wilkesboro for deep cleaning.
By then, the damage was already done, with the virus spreading through Tyson’s workforce in Wilkesboro and to family members as far away as Winston-Salem.
Raw Story has confirmed at least five deaths linked to the Wilkesboro plant in the two weeks that followed mass testing and deep cleaning at the plant.
Laxmi Karki, a 79-year-old Bhutanese refugee in Winston-Salem, died on May 18 at Forsyth Medical Center from a heart attack caused by COVID-19 pneumonia, according to her death certificate. A Bhutanese community leader who spoke to Raw Story on condition of anonymity, confirmed that three of Karki’s family members are employed at the Wilkesboro plant, all of whom shared living space and meals with her.
Similarly, Eliseo Posada, a 74-year-old immigrant from Mexico and retired trimmer at the fresh plant in Tyson Foods’ Wilkesboro complex, died from septic shock and COVID-19 on May 27. The following day, Erasmo Banda, 62 and also a Mexican immigrant, died from acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock and COVID-19. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Latinx leader in Wilkes County confirmed to Raw Story that Banda was employed at Tyson at the time he contracted coronavirus and that Posada contracted the virus from his daughter, who was working at the plant at the time.
The deadly trifecta was completed on May 29, when Miguel Matias, a 55-year-old Guatemalan immigrant and trimmer who commuted 30 miles from Lenoir to work at Tyson, succumbed to hypoxic respiratory failure and COVID-19. His death certificate confirms his occupation as “trimming, Tyson Foods.”
Although Mercedes eventually recovered and went back to work, she also spread the virus to a family member. When she contacted her doctor to see about getting tested, he said the only way he could see her was through video-conference. Mercedes is not very savvy with computers, and she needed assistance.
“My cousin helped her download the software, and he caught COVID-19 from her,” Mercedes’ son recalled. “So, he was sick at the same time that she was sick. We were worried and sad. It was a hard, hard situation.”
An analysis published by Business Insider in early May linked Tyson Foods to 18 deaths from COVID-19 across the country. Since then, lawsuits have documented three additional deaths among Tyson workers from COVID-19 at Tyson Foods pork-processing facility in Waterloo, Iowa, and one at the company’s meatpacking plant in Amarillo, Texas.
A statement issued to Raw Story by Tyson Foods for this story did not acknowledge the deaths of workers and family members.
‘Is this to protect us or the people from Arkansas?’
Even after testing workers and temporarily shutting down the plant for deep cleaning and sanitizing, Mercedes and Paula said management in Wilkesboro has continued to make decisions that put workers at unnecessary risk.
“Tyson did the whole thing wrong,” Mercedes said. “They tested everyone one May 7 and May 8. They shut down on a Friday and Monday, and everybody got back to work on Tuesday. They brought everybody back, including people who were sick. They mixed people who were sick together with people who were healthy.”
Mercedes said when she tested positive, she told one of her coworkers.
“My coworker came up to the supervisor, and said, ‘Hey, I want to go home; I have the same symptoms,” Mercedes recalled. “The supervisor said, ‘No, you have to stay. I don’t have no help.’”
Derek Burleson, a Tyson spokesperson, said that would be contrary to company policy.
“We are actively encouraging team members to stay home when ill — and are sending team members home when they exhibit even one of the many symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” Burleson told Raw Story. “We have provided detailed education about COVID-19, screen team members before work, and have made a number of benefits improvements to help encourage ill team members to stay home, including waiving the waiting period for short-term disability and increasing the payment to 90 percent for COVID-19 illness.”
When Tyson sent a team from its corporate headquarters in Arkansas to visit the Wilkesboro in May, Mercedes and Paula said local management made a show of good safety practices.
“Management told us they had people from Arkansas coming over,” Mercedes recalled. “When these guys came in, everybody had to wear a mask and a shield. After that, they said, ‘You don’t have to use it now; it’s just a show for the big boss.’” Mercedes added that one of the workers asked a supervisor: “Is this to protect us or the people from Arkansas?”
Burleson said in response that Tyson workers are required to wear masks at all times, except when eating and drinking, and the facility has social distance monitors in place to ensure compliance with the mask policy.
Paula and Mercedes maintain that hand-sanitizing dispensers are frequently empty and there’s no social distancing. Mercedes said she doesn’t feel safe eating in the cafeteria and that multiple people use the same microwave without disinfecting it, so she typically eats lunch in her car.
Burleson did not respond directly to the claim that hand-sanitizing dispensers at the Wilkesboro plant are frequently empty, but said the facility has added more hand-sanitizing stations.
The virus continues to spread through the facility, according to Paula, who said she knows of four people at the Wilkesboro plant who got since during the week of June 22-26.
When one of her coworkers asked a supervisor for gloves, Paula said the supervisor responded that gloves were optional.
“Tyson wasn’t going to do anything,” Paula said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Tyson is very clean. We clean after each shift.’ Tyson is just trying to hide as much as possible.”
Mercedes said workers are discouraged from talking about COVID-19 among themselves.
“My supervisor said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more gossip; if we hear anything, we’ll let you know,’” Mercedes said. “They told us we were not allowed to discuss anything going on at Tyson.”
Paula and Mercedes’ account echoes the claims made in a lawsuit filed by the families of the three workers who died at the Waterloo, Iowa plant that the company knowingly put workers at risk and that supervisors warned workers not to discuss coronavirus at work.
Tyson’s sprawling chicken-processing complex spills down a hillside along the main road into Wilkesboro — a collection of brick industrial buildings and water towers, with tractor-trailers shuttling from loading dock to dock inside the complex.
Wilkesboro, with roughly 3,500 residents, is the seat of government for Wilkes County, a remote and sparsely populated place of gently rolling hills framed by the picturesque bluish outline of mountains to the west. Wilkes County is the birthplace of Junior Johnson, the legendary moonshiner-turned NASCAR driver celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Doc Watson, the late and beloved folk guitar player was born next door in Watauga County. The annual MerleFest music festival at Wilkes Community College remained a draw for luminaries from Elvis Costello to Robert Plant until it was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Beyond its cultural cache, Wilkes is a county burdened with poverty, as a 2017 study noted, with a third of children living in poverty and half of Latinx children in poverty. Tyson Foods is the county’s largest employer.
Mercedes and Paula said 70 to 80 percent of the workforce at Tyson is Latinx, but an increasing number of workers are refugees from Africa and Asia who make long commutes from cities like Morganton, Hickory, Winston-Salem and High Point. The Nine Asian & African Market across from the Tyson plant parking lot on South Cherry Street attests to their buying power.
With COVID-19 taking a toll on the workforce at the Wilkesboro plant, Tyson is pushing the workers who remain on the job to work more, Paula and Mercedes said.
“We’ve been working six days a week for the last six weeks,” Paula said. “Many people are sick, or just not coming to work.”
Burleson said in response that the Wilkesboro plant historically has a strong retention rate, and the plant is “currently hiring for a limited number of openings.”
But a banner outside the plant broadcasts, “Now hiring — all positions,” while a placard advertises $2,250 sign-on bonuses.
Latinx and refugee workers on the frontline of the pandemic
Latinx immigrants and refugees from Asia and Africa make up a considerable portion of the workforce at other meat-processing plants across the state.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has identified 2,812 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 27 “active clusters at meat-processing plants” in 20 different counties. Although the companies are not named, the counties on the state’s list align with the location of facilities operated by some of the largest producers in North Carolina, including Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro, Mountaire Farms in Siler City, Pilgrim’s Pride in Sanford, Butterball in Mount Olive, and Smithfield, with two plants in Tar Heel and Clinton.
A spokesperson told Raw Story the department doesn’t disaggregate confirmed cases associated with active clusters at meat-processing plants by county because the industry is not regulated by the state Department of Health and Human Services, and the plants are not required to report to state and local health agencies when they have multiple employees who have tested positive.
Two people have died from COVID-19 who worked at the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, 60 miles to the southwest of Wilkesboro, according to Hunter Ogletree, co-director of the Western North Carolina Workers Center. Ogletree said the workers’ families did not want to speak publicly.
North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen acknowledged during a June 18 briefing that Latinx workers shoulder a disproportionate burden from the public-health risks posed by meat-processing facilities.
“We are seeing that our Latinx community is being hit hard in particular,” she said. “We know that there are certain settings that are more high risk. We put them up on our website — those that are required to report to us. So, yes, we see long-term care settings, but we also know that we’ve talked a lot of times about our meat-packing plants and other places where people are close together for longer periods of time indoors where it’s colder, right — that’s where the virus spreads.”
Latinx people comprise only 9.8 percent of the North Carolina population, but they make up up 46 percent of the COVID-19 cases in the state.
Paula and Mercedes, the workers at Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro, said in addition to dangerous working conditions, Latinx workers experience discrimination from management.
“They don’t care about Latinos because they know we are hard workers,” Mercedes said. “They push us and push us.”
The two women said supervisors give Latinx workers a hard time if they ask for time off for illness, ask to go to the bathroom or aren’t wearing their masks, while other workers get treated differently.
Tyson Foods said in a statement to Raw Story that the company is “committed to providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination,” and that workers are encouraged to speak with local management about issues or call a 24-hour Ethics Help Line. The statement indicated that workers “are allowed to use the restroom during shifts” and reiterated that workers are encouraged to stay home when they are ill.
Ogletree said silence on the part of workers in meat-processing plants should not be interpreted as contentment.
“They face an inexcusable choice between going to work and potentially exposing their families to getting sick, and staying home and losing their income,” he said. “This is a billion-dollar industry. They have the means to restructure their [production] lines. They don’t have to choose between protecting their workers and staying in business. “We’re not asking consumers to stop eating poultry,” he continued. “We’re not asking them to compromise the food supply. This has been an industry that has never taken worker health and safety seriously, but it’s gotten worse under COVID-19. They’ve always put profits over people, and that’s even more the case today.”
Paula said the workers at Tyson’s Wilkesboro plant are proud to do their part to maintain the nation’s food supply chain, but in turn they want to be respected.
“Eighty percent of the workers are Latino,” she said. “The Latinos do more work than any other people. Nobody needs to thank us, but at least take care of us.”
Update: Upon publication of this story, Tyson sent us the following statement:
We are saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with the family at this difficult time. At Tyson Foods, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we have put in place a host of protective steps at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidelines for preventing COVID-19, including at our Wilkesboro facility.