“This is just the beginning of a catastrophe.” Group protests outside NWA poultry plant amid small COVID-19 outbreak

KNWA

ROGERS, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Northwest Arkansas poultry workers are increasingly testing positive for COVID-19, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. A workers’ rights advocacy group protested outside a Rogers plant Friday after the governor’s daily press briefing revealed small outbreaks in two new places.

As of Friday afternoon, 41 area poultry workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The ADH confirmed 37 of those cases are active. Dr. Nate Smith, the department’s secretary, announced Springdale’s Cargill Poultry and Rogers’ Ozark Mountain Poultry were new additions, the former with 16 reported active cases and the latter with nine.

“We know that there’s gonna be more this week because workers who called [me] this morning said they have symptoms, but they are punished for missing work,” said Magaly Licolli, the main organizer for Venceremos, an advocacy group that protested the Rogers plant.

The reported numbers increased after the governor’s news conference. At the time, Smith listed seven cases for Ozark Mountain Poultry and four for Cargill.

“This is all from the cases that were reported [Thursday],” Smith said.

Licolli and her fellow protesters, clad in masks and holding pro-worker signs, expressed anger toward Ozark Mountain Poultry for “inhumane, not-sustainable” working conditions.

“These workers are risking their lives and also being threatened of losing their jobs [by demanding] better working conditions for them,” Licolli said, adding that some workers left the plant to protest alongside her group.

George’s Inc., the parent company of Ozark Mountain Poultry, declined to comment through their spokesperson Daniel Workman on Friday. Workman sent a link to a page that lists the company’s responses to the national outbreak.

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan confirmed the positive cases in an email Friday, adding the company, “is working closely with health officials to ensure effective prevention, testing, cleaning, and quarantine protocols are followed within our facilities.”

Though Sullivan indicated no new measures have been added inside the plant since the positive cases were announced, he shared a list of precautionary actions Cargill has implemented in response to the nationwide outbreak:

  • Enforcing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for employees who have tested positive for, or been exposed to, COVID-19, as well as any employees who may have come into contact with any team member who has tested positive for the virus; 
  •     Temperature testing;
  •     Providing face masks;
  •     Enhancing the cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities;
  •     Prohibiting visitors from entering our facilities;
  •     Offering staggered breaks and shift flexibility for employees;
  •     Increasing distancing between employees; and
  •     Communicating the importance of social distancing at home and at work as well as the importance of quarantining and return-to-work timing.

“In addition to the health and safety measures mentioned above, we are offering enhanced benefits for our employees, including providing up to 80 hours of additional paid leave for COVID-19 related needs,” Sullivan said. “We care deeply about our co-workers and the communities where we live and work.”

Licolli contested some plants’ claims that workers have been separated by partitions, saying some Ozark Mountain Poultry employees told her they’re working “shoulder to shoulder”. She said restructured work environments and a reevaluated idea of expectations and production output should be considered.

“We are gonna keep seeing these cases in Tyson plants, in George’s plants, in everywhere here,” Licolli said. “This is just the beginning of a catastrophe.”

In late April, President Trump signed an executive order that forced meat processing plants to remain open during the outbreak. This came amid growing concerns that food supply chains would be negatively impacted, leaving poultry products off the shelves and driving up prices.

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