WALLULA, Walla Walla County — Jose Trinidad Corral is a “chuck boner,” an almost-20-year veteran of the Tyson Fresh Meats packing plant that rises like a concrete fortress from a hillside by the Columbia River. In his wallet, he carries a letter that explains to law enforcement or anyone else who might ask why he continues to work each day when others shelter at home. Drafted by his employer, the document cites President Donald Trump, who on March 16 found food-processing workers to bear a “special responsibility” to maintain their normal schedules during this national emergency.
In the days that followed this announcement, Corral and his colleagues performed this frontline duty largely without what are now deemed to be basic workplace protections to reduce the risk of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Not until April did the plant require the wearing of face masks and erect plexiglass barriers between line workers and more recently in dining areas, among other safety measures. By then the disease already had slipped into the plant, morphing into a severe outbreak that has spread to some 100 workers and family members. Many more workers have stayed at home to quarantine or to avoid exposure.
This week, Corral says, his processing team of some 50 people is down to less than half its full strength. Then, earlier this week, Corral and others who remain on the job received grim news. The disease had claimed the life of a longtime plant worker, 60-year-old J. Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza, who went home ill in March and died Monday after more than a week on a hospital ventilator.
“We are afraid … we have no voice,” Corral said. “We knew there would be positive cases. We didn’t expect this many.”
The COVID-19 cases at Tyson’s Wallula plant are part of an avalanche of outbreaks that have hit U.S. beef, pork and poultry plants, and point to the pitfalls that may lie ahead for other businesses when they eventually bring back workers. The toll on the meat-processing industry has stunned some of industry’s biggest players, and prompted an urgent push to redefine workplace protections needed to keep products flowing into grocery stores.
In Washington, in addition to the coronavirus outbreak at Tyson, the Washington Beef plant in Toppenish in Yakima County has had 38 cases of COVID-19, including one death and two hospitalizations. Nationally, an investigation by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found 3,400 confirmed COVID-19 infections at 62 plants that had resulted in at least 17 worker deaths.
As protesters rally in Washington and other states to pressure governors to open more businesses, meat processors have been under pressures in some communities where they operate to temporarily close.
They also are facing scrutiny for their market conduct. This spring, prices paid to cattle producers have tumbled even as meat processors, buoyed by strong grocery store demand, have received higher prices for boxed beef. In an April 6 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer requested that an ongoing federal investigation of beef pricing margins be expanded to look for market manipulations or other signs of unfair practices during the pandemic.
Still, the COVID-19 outbreaks also are taking a financial toll on processors. Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based meat processing giant which last year posted more than $42 billion in annual revenues, has had to slow some operations and temporarily shut down others, including a closure announced this week of its largest pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa.
Tyson plant to pause and test
In Washington, county health officials have required Tyson, which typically has a workforce of more than 1,400 at the Wallula plant, to test all employees coronavirus. This will result in a temporary halt to operations announced by Tyson on Thursday, with workers asked to self-quarantine at home — after testing — with paid leave.
“We’ve taken both of our responsibilities, to continue feeding the nation and keeping our team members safe and healthy, seriously,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, in a statement that noted the company’s protective measures go beyond Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
As Tyson cases have mounted, public health officials for Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties have taken the lead in scrutinizing the company’s actions to combat the coronavirus. The Walla Walla Department of Community Health has been in daily contact with Tyson, developing coronavirus safety guidelines and conducting inspections.
“They, like everyone else, have learned as they go,” said Meghan Debolt, the director of the Walla Walla County health department. “Honestly, I think Tyson was a little bit slow to implement.”
According to Debolt, Tyson did not require workers to wear face masks until April 13, and the plexiglass line barriers were not fully installed until the second week of April. The barriers between workers in the dining area were not in place until earlier this week, according to Corral.
Debolt expects the required testing will result in a four-day closure of the Tyson plant.
The Washington Beef plant in Toppenish, which employs more than 1,000 people, continues to operate since a worker death in March. The company said in a statement the plant is running on reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing that achieved “significant spacing between individuals on the line.” Plant officials first started taking preventive measures March 3, which included overnight disinfections, and are working with Yakima County officials to develop additional steps.
Some food-processing companies temporarily shut down at the first sign of a COVID-19 plant infection. A Lamb-Weston potato plant in Pasco closed March 27 for more than two weeks for disinfection after one worker tested positive for the coronavirus, then again on Wednesday after another worker tested positive, according to a company spokesperson.
Some workers and their family members. along with labor advocates, criticize Tyson for putting beef production ahead of worker safety, and county and state regulators for failing to take more aggressive action earlier this spring.
In mid-March, amid rising concerns about the pandemic, Nancy Olivera recalls texting her father, Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza, before he became fatally ill with COVID-19. She asked what special precautions were in place at the plant and was dismayed by his response.
“There was nothing. It was business as usual,” Olivera said.
“Something is not right that this has been allowed to get so far out of control,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers labor union.
A shortage of workers
Corral, who was born in Chicago and spent his youth in Mexico, went to work at the Wallula plant as a teenager. Today, the 39-year-old worker earns nearly $19 an hour with benefits that include a month of paid vacation.
For years, this Wallula plant has been one of the largest employers in Walla Walla County, and has offered immigrants from many different countries a place to draw a steady paycheck. The plant has at times had union representation, which Corral supported, but a 2016 vote decertified representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The plant sits next to a vast “restricted holding facility” where cattle mill about in close quarters before being sent to slaughter. In normal operations, Corral works in another part of the plant, where he cuts up carcasses.
So far, Corral has maintained his health, and has stayed on the job even as many co-workers opted to stay home. The facility, during normal operations, processes enough beef each day to feed 4 million people, according to the company. And Corral takes pride in his support of that effort.
“I don’t want to have a shortage of food later,” he said. “That’s my motivation. I feel like my job produces something that benefits the community.”
Through the weeks, Corral said more and more workers disappeared from the lines. He was never sure whether they had tested positive, been told to quarantine by plant managers or just stayed home out of fear. But staffing grew so low that the slaughterhouse had to cut back on killing cattle so the processing lines would not be overwhelmed with carcasses, he said.
For those who have fallen sick, quiet struggles to heal unfold in homes in communities near the plant. The wife of one Walla Walla worker said her husband fell ill along with her father-in-law as they shared a carpool to work each day. She has been able to keep her children healthy, but six family members at her father-in-law’s house recently tested positive for the virus.
In Pasco, a worker from Southeast Asia has been off work since April 13, and continues to struggle with high fevers and body aches from a bout of COVID-19 that has robbed him of his appetite. His pregnant wife sent their two young children to live with relatives, while she shares their home with the family of her brother-in-law, another Tyson worker who also has fallen ill.
“Take this seriously … I can see that my husband suffers right now. It is very hard,” said the worker’s wife, who along with her husband requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.
Protection came “too late”
Mendoza, the Wallula Tyson worker who died earlier this week, held business and accounting degrees in his native Mexico, and moved to Washington to be closer to his children, according to his daughter.
Though he had diabetes, he rarely saw a doctor despite the tough duty butchering beef on the processing line. After the first several days of being ill, Mendoza appeared to be on the mend and he regained his appetite. Then he tested positive for the virus, and the disease soon migrated to his lungs. When his wife drove him to a Richland hospital earlier this month, Mendoza no longer had enough wind to talk. He was immediately put on a ventilator, according to Olivera. No one could visit during an agonizingly long stay that stretched for some two weeks at the Kadlec Regional Medical Center.
Olivera said she was grateful for the care he received there, but it was very hard to get any information from the harried staff.
Then last Sunday, Olivera and three other family members were allowed into the hospital for a final goodbye after doctors said there was nothing more they could do for him.
That was the same day that a protest against stay-home orders drew more than 100 people to a Richland thoroughfare. Olivera took a circuitous route to the hospital to avoid marchers, and arrived to find her father fading and unresponsive.
Through this April ordeal, Olivera said Tyson management stayed in touch with the family, and recently offered condolences. She wishes that Tyson had required masks and other protections a lot earlier in the pandemic.
“This is too late, ” Olivera said.