Undocumented Poultry Workers Fear Speaking Out on Unsafe Conditions

Nadia Ramlagan | Public News Service
Tight working conditions on production lines in meat and poultry processing facilities make it impossible for workers to adhere to 6-foot distancing. Photo Credit: Pixabay

GOODLETTSVILLE, Tenn. — A Tyson chicken plant in Goodlettsville is reporting nearly 300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among employees, and similar scenarios are popping up across the country where COVID-19 has spread rapidly in meat processing and packing facilities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among workers nationwide. At least 20 people have died.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, says many poultry workers are undocumented and live in fear they will lose their jobs by speaking out. She says poultry workers often live in high density housing and carpool to their jobs.

“We know that number is much greater because of their families and their communities who have now caught the disease,” she states.

President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order giving Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue greater authority to handle the response to the global pandemic, as meat shortages have prompted several large grocers, including Costco, to limit the amount of meat customers can purchase.

The CDC has issued guidelines for meatpackers, including six-foot spacing and barriers between workers, but Sherman-Nikolaus points out a huge part of the problem is lack of accountability in the industry.

“There is really no enforcement mechanism or complaint system at this time, and so it makes it hard for workers to be able to report unsafe working conditions,” she states.

According to the Tennessee Poultry Association, the state ranks 14th in the nation for chicken production, and workers at five plants process millions of birds each week.