North Carolina agricultural workers demand COVID-19 protections

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Statewide and local organizations gathered in downtown Raleigh on Nov. 5 to repeat calls to state officials to mandate rigorous protections for workers in the meat processing and produce agriculture industries in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Carolina Farmworker Advocacy Network, a coalition of groups calling for Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and the North Carolina Department of Labor to protect workers, also held a vigil for the largely Latino immigrant essential workers who died due to COVID-19 contracted while on the job.

The coronavirus spread rapidly throughout the spring and summer in various meatpacking plants and the housing facilities of seasonal immigrant farmworkers, both places where workers are in close quarters and where COVID-19 safety recommendations were in place, but not mandatory laws.

Large skeleton figurines and a giant puppet representing the sun loomed over the crowd at the event at Bicentennial Plaza, which featured a Day of the Dead-style altar with candles and images of laborers who died from COVID-19 related causes.

“Since March, essential workers, especially farmworkers and processing (plant) workers, have risked their lives at work,” said Lariza Garzon, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Harnett County. “North Carolina’s food system and the profitability of farms and meat processing plants have been maintained at the expense of these workers’ health and safety.”

Cooper told the labor advocacy groups of NCFAN in the summer that he would issue an executive order for sweeping protections for farm and plant laborers, but he backed down from issuing the order after pushback from state labor and agriculture officials, The News & Observer previously reported.

COVID-19’s toll on workers

Since April, the state Department of Health and Human Services reports, at least 19 deaths were related to virus clusters at meatpacking plants. It attributes 3,859 cases to them in a new weekly report on clusters.

Another DHHS report attributes 3,799 cases and 17 deaths to the category of congregate living facilities, which includes immigrant farmworker housing. The exact number of affected farmworkers is unknown.

Johnston County farmworkers recently featured in a series of stories on climate change by McClatchy had a virus outbreak at their housing, workers and advocacy groups told The N&O.

Several farm and poultry plant workers spoke at the event in Spanish through a translator, denouncing a lack of protections at their jobs, such as paid time off, sick leave, or enough access to personal protective equipment. They also spoke about being required to show up to work while feeling sick and not being allowed paid time off to recover from the virus.

Out of economic need, many immigrant workers continued to work as coronavirus outbreaks struck workplaces, such as in meatpacking plants — where state health officials have refused to disclose virus data by facility, as was done for nursing home facilities.

“Us farmworkers, we are not disposable workers, we are people that deserve respect and we deserve a dignified life,” said Alicia Soriano, a tobacco farmworker, in Spanish. “We provide food to your tables and we ask the governor to take action for all of us.”

A poultry plant worker from a Burke County facility in Morganton said that she wasn’t allowed time off from work when she felt sick until she tested positive for COVID-19.

“It makes me angry because we’re the ones who get sick, and the (companies) don’t,” said Evelin, who declined to give her last name out of fear of losing employment.

“We ask (state labor officials) to put regulations into place not only in the poultry plants but for all the workers who are out there,” she said.

Petition to the state labor department

The event came a week before the state Department of Labor had to legally respond to a petition from advocacy groups that are part of the NCFAN coalition.

The Petition for Rule Making that was filed in October is a formal document that lays out demands for sweeping mandatory coronavirus protections for agricultural workers. State labor officials are given a month to respond under state law, Clermont Ripley, an N.C. Justice Center attorney, told The N&O.

The petition notes that the Department of Labor closed nearly 1,000 workplace health and safety complaints related to COVID-19 and only responded to six cases with investigations since September, according to COVID-19 data published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Labor officials can choose to respond to the petition or reject it and advocacy groups may choose to either take the case to court or wait to petition the incoming labor commissioner after the official 2020 election results are in.

Lariza Garzon, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, speaks in front of an altar assembled to honor the lives of farmworkers and poultry processing workers who have died from COVID-19, during a protest to call on the North Carolina Department of Labor to enforce safety standards and protect workers, on Nov. 5 in Raleigh, N.C.
A poultry processing plant worker known by her first name as Evelin speaks about her experiencing contracting COVID-19 in front of an altar assembled to honor the lives of fellow farmworkers and poultry processing workers who have died from COVID-19, during a protest to call on the NC Department of Labor to enforce safety standards and protect workers, on Nov. 5in Raleigh, N.C.