Annie Grant, 55, had been feverish for two nights. Worried about the coronavirus outbreak, her adult children had begged her to stay home rather than return to the frigid poultry plant in Georgia where she had been on the packing line for nearly 15 years. But on the third day she was ill, they got a text from their mother. "They told me I had to come back to work," it said.
Grant ended up returning home, and died in a hospital on Thursday morning after fighting for her life on a ventilator for more than a week. Two other workers at the Tyson Foods poultry plant where she worked in Camilla, Georgia, have also died in recent days.
"My mom said the guy at the plant said they had to work to feed America. But my mom was sick," said one of Grant's sons, Willie Martin, 34, a teacher in South Carolina. He said he watched on his phone as his mother took her last breath.
The coronavirus pandemic has reached the processing plants where workers typically stand elbow to elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting, deboning and packing the chicken and beef that Americans savor. Some plants have offered financial incentives to keep them on the job, but the virus's swift spread is causing illness and forcing plants to close.
Smithfield Foods' pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, announced Thursday that it would close temporarily, after more than 80 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Workers have come down with COVID-19 in several poultry plants in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
JBS USA, the world's largest meat processor, confirmed the death of one worker at a Colorado facility and shuttered a plant in Pennsylvania for two weeks. Cargill this week also closed a facility in Pennsylvania, where it produces steaks, ground beef and ground pork. Tyson Foods halted operations at a pork plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive.
Local chicken plants
Pilgrim’s Pride employs more than 1,200 employees at its two downtown Chattanooga poultry processing and packages plants and Koch Foods employs nearly 650 workers at its plant on Cappella Street on Chattanooga’s Southside, according to the Major Employer List for 2020 compiled by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.. Pilgrim’s Pride closed its processing plant in Dalton, Georgia, last year.
Industry analysts said the plant closures were unlikely to result in serious disruptions to the food supply.
But if the pandemic keeps plants shuttered for an extended period, some products could become harder to find in stores, said Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank in New York. "If workers don't feel safe, they may not come back, and we don't have a large pool of people that are lining up to work in these plants," she said.
At some plants, workers have staged walkouts over concerns that they are not being properly protected. But an untold number remain on the job, most of them African Americans, Latinos and immigrants.
Several major meat processing outfits are offering their workers cash incentives to continue showing up for work. At the Tyson plant in Camilla, the company offered its 2,100 employees a $500 bonus if they worked in April, May and June without missing a day. Many of the employees live a 15-minute drive away in Albany, Georgia, which has emerged as one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak.
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, said the company was taking the temperature of workers before they entered and had implemented social distancing measures. These included installing dividers between workstations and slowing production lines to widen the space between workers.
If there is a confirmed case at one site, "we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person and instruct them to go home and self-quarantine," he said. He noted that workers who are sick continue to be paid while off the job.
He also said that Tyson was coordinating with federal agencies to secure "an adequate supply of protective face coverings for production workers" and other protective coverings.
But workers and union leaders said the response by Tyson and other chicken companies, which produce the bulk of the nation's meat supply, had been inadequate.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents thousands of poultry processing workers in the South, said that it had been "imploring" producers to take steps to protect workers' safety while securing the nation's food supply chain.
"Day after day we hear reports of our members contracting the COVID-19 virus and even succumbing to it. The poultry industry can and must do better to swiftly protect workers," said Stuart Appelbaum, the union's president.
"Saying you are still scrambling for protective supplies when much of the supply chain has been protecting workers for weeks is a pathetic excuse for companies that make billions in profits annually," he said.
Fatalities among workers have lent urgency to the demands for protection.
Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS USA, confirmed that an older man who had worked for 30 years at its beef plant in Greely, Colorado, recently died from complications associated with COVID-19. Operations have been halted at a plant the company operates in Souderton, Pennsylvania, until April 16, after several managers displayed "flulike symptoms," he said.
In at least seven states, workers at Cargill, the nation's third-largest meat producer, have tested positive for the virus, according to Dan Sullivan, a company spokesman.
Sullivan confirmed that Cargill had closed a plant in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, after several employees tested positive.
The federal government has deemed food industry workers essential, and Cargill has encouraged employees to stay on the job through the pandemic with extra pay and bonus offers. Workers are eligible for up to 80 hours of paid leave for any COVID-related absence.
But some employees say they, like Grant in Georgia, feel pressure to come to work, and others say they cannot afford to remain at home past any paid sick leave.
Jose Aguilar, a representative of the union in Alabama, said many immigrant workers might not be eligible for unemployment benefits or payments from the federal stimulus package.
"For the immigrant population, it's really sad because right now, there are a lot of people who don't have a choice," he said. "Almost everybody is going to work because they need money."
A woman who has worked for 20 years at the Pilgrim's Pride in Guntersville, Alabama, said that the virus was spreading in the meat packing area, where employees work side by side and social distancing is nearly impossible. Recently, the company took measures to bolster safety, she said.
"There are people cleaning the plant; they are checking our temperatures every time we come in the morning; they're doing all that. They're starting to give us masks," said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from her employer. "But of course we're worried because the truth is we don't know if more people are going to get sick."
Pilgrim's Pride did not respond to a request for comment. The company's Facebook page said that workers who show symptoms were being told to stay home.
On Facebook, several employees of the Tyson plant in Camilla questioned why those who had been working alongside people who tested positive had not been told to stay away. Others expressed frustration that the facility remained open at all.
Shynekia Emanuel, who works nights on the deboning line in Camilla, said that his shift supervisors — the same people who had been checking workers' temperatures — had tested positive for the virus. A company spokesman said Tyson would not discuss specific employees.
Emanuel, who said that he was particularly vulnerable to the virus because he has Crohn's disease, will not report to work again until the pandemic has passed. "Enough is enough," he said. "Nobody wants to risk their lives over some chicken. Sorry. My life and my son's life is way more important."
Before checking herself into a hospital, Grant had told her children that several co-workers on her line had been absent.
"If they had taken proper precautions, they would have prevented people from getting it," her son said. "This just isn't right. It's about saving multiple lives."