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NC Farm And Poultry Workers Demand Stricter COVID-19 Protections From State Officials

NC Farm and Poultry Workers
Episcopal Farmworker Ministry
Farm and poultry workers gathered near the State Capitol building on Nov. 5, urging state officials to set stricter COVID-19 rules for their workplace.

Esmeralda Dominguez moved to the United States from Tamaulipas, Mexico ten years ago. Back home, she was a school teacher, but in order to support her then-growing family, she worked at a cucumber farm in eastern North Carolina.

“The shifts are long and grueling. You can barely take breaks,” Dominguez said. “During peak seasons, you have to work overtime. It’s really harsh”

Dominguez says that even when working overtime, agricultural and meatpacking workers can barely get by. She and some of her coworkers relied on organizations like the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry to make ends meet.

“I went to the ministry’s food pantry. A friend who was also struggling went with me. We didn’t have any money, we couldn’t buy food. We needed the help,” the mother of four explained.

Episcopal Farmworker Ministry food giveaway
Esmeralda Dominguez/Episcopal Farmworker Ministry
The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry holds its food bank on Saturdays at its headquarters in Dunn, N.C.

Now on the other end of things as a representative of the Ministry’s team, Dominguez knows how hard it’s been for farm and poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They work shoulder to shoulder in there. Sure they’re given a mask a day for the entire long, non-stop work shifts. But those dampen. And they can’t afford to buy more themselves. It’s not enough,” she said.

Like Dominguez, these workers are often immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America, fearful of sharing what they experience at work and being fired or deported.

The latest estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are more than 22,000 workers in North Carolina’s poultry and meatpacking plants. The Bureau’s data also show a little over 2,600 farmworkers in the state. The Office of Foreign Labor Certification provides data on which workers are not U.S. citizens, but only for those who have work visas in these industries -- just 473.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute explains that there isn’t an actual breakdown of who works in these industries. But with the help of U.S. Census data, the report shows that, nationally, nearly 71% of foreign-born workers in meatpacking are not U.S. citizens.

Miguel Rodriguez is a rural organizer with Latinos United for Progress in Cumberland County. He has visited housing provided by the companies where some of these workers live onsite. Rodriguez says the conditions have been dire.

“I went to a 55 foot mobile home in the summertime in July,” he said. “They had 17 people in that mobile home without air conditioning.”

Hoping for change, Dominguez and other organizers helped workers send a petition to the North Carolina Department of Labor back in November. They demanded the state establish rules for emergency standards in the workplace or set strict requirements for their employers to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an eleven-page response, State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry denied their petition. Dominguez says she and her colleagues thought it would finally bring some change.

“It was really disappointing. This community is suffering,” she said. “People call me saying, “Please help us. We can no longer protect ourselves. We can’t stop working because we need to feed our families. We’re essential workers.”

When asked what is being done to protect poultry and meatpacking workers considering the second wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and as the holidays increase the demand for poultry and other meat products, North Carolina Poultry Federation Executive Director Robert Ford sent an email saying, “I haven't heard of any increases or spikes in positive cases reported from our industry due to the Thanksgiving Holidays.”

The state department of labor didn’t fulfill our request for an interview but shared Commissioner Berry’s response to the workers’ petition. She wrote that setting stricter rules in industries like farming and meatpacking would be government overreach. Her letter also says that these industries are already suffering due to the pandemic and any other rules would be ineffective in helping these companies.

She goes on to explain the Department of Labor has instead approached COVID-19 safety from an educational standpoint -- advising workers in plants on what they should do to protect themselves during the pandemic. Berry also states the department has been collaborating with the State Departments of Agriculture and Health.

“Our opinion is that the rules that are in place should be abided by,” said Benjamin Money, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health. “Whether it's a lack of knowledge about what those rules are, lack of knowledge of the safety practices, you know, or outright defiance of it, they need to be enforced.”

The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry and other groups are now pushing a Wake County judge to force the Department of Labor to set protections for workers from COVID-19.

In the meantime, Esmeralda Dominguez says that without state intervention, workers will continue to rely on community support and do their best to avoid bringing the coronavirus into their homes.