Barber Foods on St. John Street in Portland is a subsidiary of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods. (Portland Phoenix/File)
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Tyson Foods announced Monday that it completed facility-wide testing at its Portland poultry processing plant and found 51 employees and contractors who were infected with COVID-19. 

In a press release, Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said the company has put in place protective measures that meet or exceed federal guidance for preventing COVID-19.

He said workers at the Barber Foods plant on St. John Street will be screened for symptoms and their temperatures will be checked at every shift, they will be provided with face masks that must be worn, and they will have access to nurse practitioners and enhanced health education and support. 

The plant, which has more than 400 employees, was closed May 2 for several days and reopened late last week after a deep cleaning of the facility was completed.

Chanbopha Himm, co-president and treasurer of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine.

But Chanbopha Himm, co-president of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine, said she remains worried about many Cambodians who work at the plant who may not understand English well enough to keep themselves aware of the evolving situation at Tyson.

Himm, who is fluent in Khmer, said she has been on the phone with families each evening, sometimes until midnight, answering questions about what they should do to protect themselves and their families. 

Many Cambodians have elderly parents living with them, she said, and one of the common questions from people who have tested positive for the disease is how do I prevent giving it to my parents?

Another question Himm gets a lot is about how to apply for unemployment insurance. She said some Tyson employees do not understand they have access to short-term disability insurance, which the company recently increased to 90 percent of normal pay through June. 

Himm helps them by organizing a three-way call with representatives at insurance provider Unum, where she used to be employed in the short-term disability department, so she can help the workers enroll. 

She said the questions coming from Tyson employees make her wonder whether the employees are not being educated at work about help available to them and how to access it. She also wonders how information is being provided about COVID-19 inside the plant. 

“Is it just a poster that’s on the wall?” she said.

Sparkman, who is based in Arkansas, said Tuesday that Tyson uses a translation phone service to translate in all languages as needed. In addition, he said a member of the management team at the plant is Cambodian and can serve as a translator. 

Himm said she would like the company to allow the Cambodian Community Association to come to the plant and give a class on filing for short-term disability or help translate messages for the workers.  

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC uses medically certified translators when conducting contact tracing with infected workers for whom English is not the first language.

“These conversations are difficult enough and technical enough,” he said during a May 5 press briefing. “But when you add on an additional layer of someone for whom English may not be their first language, words like quarantine and coronavirus may not translate so well. That’s why we make sure we use certified medical translators, not just someone we happen to know who may speak the language.” 

Shah, who speaks Khmer, has also been working with the Cambodian Community Association on developing a video of general information on COVID-19 and how to protect against its spread. Himm said Shah will be doing a Zoom meeting with the organization on Wednesday, May 13, which will be recorded and made available to members of the community. 

Himm said she would also like Tyson to share a list of employees, because not all of the Cambodian employees have reached out to them for help. 

The Cambodian Community Association is also distributing care packages for the community at large. Members distributed 480 pounds of chicken on May 9 and plan to hand out another 575 pounds, along with rice, diapers, masks, and hand sanitizer on May 16. 

Himm expressed gratitude for the support the association is getting from other individuals, companies and organizations. She said CCAM volunteers have been trained on the unemployment process by Sue Hamlett of Maine Equal Justice Partners and she has personally received assistance from Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition.

“The stories I could tell of (Stickney) helping me through countless nights, answering questions and guiding me with who I can speak to to get this resolved for these families is amazing,” Himm said. “The Maine Equal Justice Partners are incredible. I can’t ask for a better group of people that we’re working with. I’m just overwhelmed and so grateful for all these people that I’m working with.”

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