Barber Foods on St. John Street in Portland as seen from the Fore River Parkway on May 4, when there had been 17 cases of COVID-19 confirmed among the plant's employees. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Several organizations are coordinating support for employees of Tyson Foods after the state revealed a COVID-19 outbreak at the company’s Barber Foods chicken processing plant on St. John Street in Portland. 

As of May 5, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 37 positive cases at the plant after tests of more than 400 employees. 

Marpheen Chann, co-president of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine, said Cambodians comprise a significant part of the plant’s workforce – including his uncle who has worked there for 20 years. 

“A lot of Cambodians have been with Barber Foods for a while, and so they love the company it seems,” Chann said May 2.

Barber Foods on St. John Street in Portland is a subsidiary of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Tyson acquired Barber in 2017 as part of its acquisition of AdvancePierre, which bought Barber in 2011. But many workers still refer to it as Barber.

“I know (former owner) David Barber has been a strong supporter of immigrant worker issues, especially around workforce development,” Chann said. “So I have tremendous respect for him.”

But he also promised the association would advocate for the workers as it continues its outreach over the next several days. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said meat processing plants are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks because workers are in close contact with each other over long shifts, often touching the same tools and surfaces, and because it is common for workers to carpool or use shared vans, shuttles or public transportation to and from work. 

Because so many meat processing workers are immigrants, the agency recommends hanging informational posters in all the languages of the worker population at each facility. It offers posters on how to stop the spread of germs in 21 different languages, but Khmer – the official language of Cambodia – is not one of them. 

Fortunately, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah spent the early part of his career working for the Cambodian Ministry of Health and is fluent in Khmer. Agency spokesman Robert Long said Shah is planning to record a short video in Khmer offering general information about COVID-19. 

“We’re really appreciative of that,” Chann said. “(It helps) because immigrants tend to keep their heads low and have the mindset that when they have a problem, they should not make a fuss and just try to deal with it.”

He said the CCA is trying to let the workers know help is available and it is OK to take advantage of it. 

The association is also putting together care packages containing 25-pound bags of rice, hand sanitizer from Maine Craft Distilling, toilet paper, diapers if needed, and facemasks made from Cambodian sarongs by a community member. These will be distributed to about 50 Cambodian families, focusing on the elderly and low-income people. The group plans to expand the effort with a Maine Initiatives grant. 

There is an intake form on the association’s website to help people connect with translators, help with unemployment insurance in the event the plant closes for a substantial period of time, and counseling “because everyone’s dealing with anxiety and stress during the current crisis,” Chann said.  

Nationwide impact

By May 1, nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 and 20 deaths among workers had been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control by 115 meat and poultry processing facilities across 19 states. 

Four Tyson plants were shuttered, including one in Waterloo, Iowa, that accounted for 4 percent of the country’s pork processing capacity. 

Tyson Chairman John Tyson warned in several full-page newspaper ads on April 26 that closing meat processing factories was “breaking” the food supply chain and would lead to food waste. 

“The government bodies at the national, state, county, and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic, or worry,” Tyson said.

Two days later, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, ordering all beef, pork, chicken, and egg processing plants to continue operating as critical infrastructure. He also said that the order would protect employers from liability. But Trump’s order has not led to many of the plants reopening. 

U.S. CDC guidance states that critical infrastructure workers are permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19 if they remain asymptomatic. 

Local response

Mufalo Chitam of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition said her organization is working with CCA and Vietnamese community leaders to try to get in touch with every worker at the Portland plant. They are directing the workers to the Southern Maine Workers Center hotline where they can get information about their rights and where they will be told that each of them should report back to Tyson for testing, regardless of whether they have health insurance. 

“I believe the government said if someone doesn’t have (insurance) they can be covered under emergency Medicare, so we’re going to test the system,” Chitam said.  

Tyson representative Worth Sparkman, who is based in Arkansas, on Monday said health insurance is a requirement of full-time employment.

“We require all regular, full-time team members who have completed 59 days of employment to have health-care coverage through either the company-sponsored health plan or through a family member’s plan,” Sparkman said.

While it is common practice for meat processing plants to use temporary workers who would not be eligible for employee benefits, he said he was told there are no temporary workers at the Portland plant. 

Questions to Tyson about whether the uninsured would have the costs of their tests covered were not answered on Monday. 

Tyson announced April 29 that it is increasing short-term disability coverage to 90 percent of regular wages through June 2020 for workers who are ill, to encourage employees to stay home when they are sick. It has also waived the waiting period to qualify, so workers are immediately paid if they get sick with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms.

The company said it also waived co-payments, co-insurance and deductibles for doctor visits and telemedicine, and eliminated pre-approval or pre-authorization requirements.  

Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, said it is her understanding that the benefits offered at the Tyson plant are better than average in terms of paid sick leave and vacation time. 

Stickney also said all employees at Tyson in Portland are authorized to work.  

“They’re very strict about checking, and have been for years,” she said. “So all of the employees should be eligible for unemployment insurance” if the plant is closed indefinitely.

DrewChristopher Joy, director of the Southern Maine Workers Center, questioned whether Trump’s order designating meat processing plants as critical infrastructure protects employers from liability in COVID-related illness and death, and said Tyson should be held liable if it did not follow safety recommendations before the outbreak.  

“I do think the responsibility is squarely on Tyson,” he said. “From what I’ve read of this situation and the outbreaks happening across the country, Tyson is waiting until there is an outbreak to take recommendations from the CDC.”  

Tyson’s response in Maine, however, elicited compliments from the state CDC director. “I’ve been delighted with the close cooperation and collaboration that we’ve had by our colleagues at Tyson Foods,” Dr. Shah said.

Ben Grant, a labor lawyer at McTeague Higbee in Topsham, recommended that Tyson workers take steps to prepare for filing workers’ compensation claims. Workers’ compensation pays for medical treatment related to a work injury, which includes illness, and a portion of lost wages.

“One of the things we don’t know now is what the long-term impact of COVID is,” Grant said. “For someone who gets it and recovers there may be diminished lung capacity for your whole life and that could require treatment of some kind.”

If a judge rules in the workers’ favor, he said, those bills could be covered on an ongoing basis. To qualify, workers who may have become ill at work must notify their employer that they believe they were infected at work and they think it’s a work injury, Grant said. 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act do require employers to provide sick leave for full-time employees for COVID-related sickness, and partial wage replacement for employees caring for a sick person. 

Tyson’s coronavirus response

Sparkman said Tyson’s workplace safety efforts are “significant and strictly enforced at all locations.” 

He said the company is increasing the distance between workers on the production floor, installing workstation dividers and barriers in breakrooms, and trying out distancing measures in various plants, including allowing more time between shifts to reduce worker interaction and erecting large tents to serve as outdoor breakrooms. 

Sparkman also said production areas are sanitized daily for food safety, but that the plants have increased deep cleaning and sanitizing in employee break rooms, locker rooms, and other common areas, and that they may suspend days of production to deep clean.

Tyson announced April 29 it is offering two $500 thank-you bonuses to each of its 116,000 workers and truckers, the first to be paid early this month and the second in July.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggests several ways to safely separate employees in meatpacking plants. (Courtesy CDC)

The U.S. CDC encourages modifying sick-leave policies to make sure ill people are not in the workplace and analyzing incentive programs so employees are not penalized for taking sick time. 

Tyson’s announcement said workers who cannot come to work “due to illness or child care will continue to qualify, but bonus eligibility will depend on attendance.” 

The U.S. CDC offers guidance that plants should identify a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 planning, that workstations should be at least 6 feet apart and ideally so they are not facing each other, and that they should be divided with Plexiglass or strip curtains. It also recommends ensuring adequate ventilation, that workers’ personal fans should not blow onto other workers, and handwashing stations with 60 percent alcohol be added throughout the work floor. 

It recommends adding clock-in stations to avoid crowding and removing or rearranging chairs in break rooms for adequate distancing. Workers should also be encouraged to avoid carpooling or to wear masks if they do. It recommends cohorting employees, so they always work with the same group.

On May 4, Shah said that on every call he has had with Tyson officials “they have uniformly expressed a desire to work with the CDC and implement and adhere to each and every one of the recommendations that we’ve put forward. So, we haven’t really had to discuss anything related to enforcement.”