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Costco announced Monday that it would be limiting the amount of meat and poultry each customer would be allowed to purchase because supplies had been affected by coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants. On that same day, the first worker at one of Costco’s poultry producers, Lincoln Premium Poultry, died of COVID-19. The worker was one of 28 diagnosed at the Fremont, Nebraska, plant, which employs 1,100 workers, most of them immigrants.
With some plants closing because of the spread of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump has classified meat processing as critical infrastructure in a move to keep plants open and safeguard the nation’s food supply. The CDC reported nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers in 115 facilities across the country tested positive in April. At least 20 have died.
BuzzFeed News spoke with an employee of the Fremont plant. She asked that we not use her name for fear of retaliation by the company; BuzzFeed verified she worked for the company by checking her employee identification.
The employee arrived in the United States from Central America more than 10 years ago. She is an unauthorized immigrant who has mostly worked in meatpacking plants since arriving in the US. BuzzFeed News talked with her about what it’s like going to work in one of the virus’s hot spots, what she and her colleagues are talking about, and why she keeps showing up despite the dangers.
Below is an edited transcript of that conversation, translated from Spanish to English.
I know about 18 of the people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant where I work.
They say the virus feels like death. That it brings about this deep cold in your body. Everyone says stay in your house, but if I stay in my house, how am I going to survive?
It’s a question without an answer.
I don’t feel safe going to work. Before the virus, I used to get to work early to start my 5 a.m. shift. Now I struggle to get to the plant. I worry about getting sick and bringing the virus home to my three children.
Fortunately I work in an area where we have a good amount of space, not like the place where they kill the chickens. In that area, they’re practically on top of one another. I stand at one of three conveyor belts where 120 chickens pass per minute. They’re mostly clean by the time they get to me, without their feathers. I look for the chickens that look purple or still have feathers and take them off of the belt. I make $16 per hour doing that. Sometimes if someone is missing, I’ll go to the area where they cut the chickens’ necks.
I first heard of the outbreak at Lincoln from Facebook. There were posts from the City of Fremont and from the media about the virus. Then when five people had been diagnosed with the virus, we had small meetings where supervisors told us to make an extra effort not to get too close to one another, not to touch our faces. The company put up dividers to separate us at the round tables in the lunchroom. They say they’re sanitizing the plant in the early morning hours, but people continue being contagious.
At Lincoln Premium Poultry, the majority of us are Latinos. For those of us who are unauthorized immigrants, in reality, there are very few jobs we can do. The owner of the plant smiles and says, “Without Latinos this plant wouldn’t exist.” That’s something [Trump] doesn’t value — the help that Latinos provide. We talk about the government a lot at the plant. Trump declared that meatpacking plants had to stay open; he doesn’t think of the workers, right? It’s when you go to the store that you see the importance of what we do. If we didn’t go to work, you wouldn’t have those products in the store.
But it’s really hurtful, for example, that I’ve been in the United States for more than 10 years and I’ve paid all my taxes and the government doesn’t recognize it. The government is giving money to a lot of people but as an unauthorized immigrant, I don’t qualify for anything.
We’re all worried about getting sick. Last week, I wasn’t feeling well and had to go to get tested. I had to stay home from work until the coronavirus test came back. I didn’t have the coronavirus.
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Everyone is asking one another, “Do you think you’ll keep coming to work?” No one wants to fall behind on their bills. There are lots of people working because of that.
Since the virus, the company realizes that we’re falling behind on production. Now they’re offering us overtime. Logically, the more time we spend at work, the more likely we are to get sick. A lot of people in the plant are saying, if the coronavirus kills us, who are the ones who are going to die of hunger?
Response from Lincoln Premium Poultry: Spokesperson Jessica Kolterman listed a variety of measures to keep workers healthy and assist those who are sick. She said the company provides masks to employees and hand sanitizer in designated areas of the plant. In other areas, 20-second handwashing is required. Plant doors are propped open in areas to assist with ventilation but are not opened in zones where doing so would compromise food safety or violate regulations. Kolterman said that Lincoln provides sick pay, that those employees who test positive for the coronavirus are paid, and that days missed from work do not count against the sick leave that works accrue. The company will pay a $2-per-hour bonus in May for those who have worked during the pandemic. Additionally, the company says it provides housing and meals for workers who are ill or who are healthy but don’t want to risk infecting members of their households.