By Nadia Ramlagan
Courtesy of Public News Service
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire among poultry workers, and President Donald Trump has issued an executive order giving Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue greater authority to handle the response to the global pandemic.
Arkansas is home to several large chicken suppliers employing thousands of people, including Tyson Foods. Senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center Sarah Rich said the issuance does not force plants to stay open, nor does it require closed plants to reopen.
“What it does do is it sends a very strong signal that the administration has the back of the companies and will support the companies and do everything that it can to prioritize the supply chain over the people who actually make the supply chain run,” Rich said.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities across the country. At least 20 people have died.
Rich said poultry plants are petri dishes for an extremely contagious virus, adding that for years, watchdog groups have documented high rates of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal injuries among workers, caused by making rapid cuts to meat for long hours without breaks.
She added many workers are being paid less than the minimum wage.
“It’s not surprising that this is happening. It’s not surprising at all,” she said. “Poultry workers have been in a slow motion crisis for a very long time.”
Rich said companies could raise wages and provide paid sick and vacation time so workers - who are mostly African-Americans, immigrants, and refugees - could afford to stay home if they become sick. She also argued slowing down production lines is critical to keep poultry workers safe.
“The basic business model of the companies is to produce the cheapest meat possible. And of course it’s understandable why consumers would want that,” she said. “But that has so many effects on how the companies do business and how they treat their workers.”
According to data from the Poultry Federation, in 2018, Arkansas’ poultry industry brought in nearly $5 billion in profits. The state ranks second in the nation for chicken production.