During the coronavirus outbreak, are Delaware's chicken plant workers able to stay safe?

Maddy Lauria
Delaware News Journal

As the number of coronavirus cases in Delaware spike, they have hit every corner of the state and have infected hundreds at nursing homes, hospitals and businesses.

That includes southern Delaware’s chicken processing plants, which employ more than 6,000 people and offer contract work for hundreds of local farmers.

While industry officials last month touted safety measures, those who work there offered a different picture of what they’re seeing behind closed doors.

"We’re not giving people chicken," one employee said. "We’re infecting more people."

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Delaware Online/The News Journal is withholding the names of the employees interviewed for this story and will not be identifying which plants they work at to protect them from retaliation.

“There’s a big fear with regard to those non-union plants,” said Nelson Hill, vice president and assistant to the president at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 27. “You’re at-will. You can be terminated for any lawful reason that the company sees fit. So, there’s a natural fear that folks will lose their position if they were to speak out.”

The union represents over 10,000 workers in Delaware at a variety of businesses including grocery stores, nursing homes and medical staff in the Delaware prison system. It also represents 800 employees at Allen Harim’s processing plant in Harbeson and 1,000 at Mountaire Farms’ processing plant in Selbyville.

Temperature checks and other preventative measures have eased some fears of employees who process and package chicken products.

Allen Harim poultry processing plant in Harbeson

Others say a lack of social distancing and information about which of their colleagues have been infected makes the job more dangerous.

“They are taking measures to make sure the plant is sanitized properly and the social distancing and all that,” said a different employee. “With my department, though, there is no social distancing. We literally work right next to each other.”

Employees said fewer people are showing up for work either because they are sick or are afraid of being infected.

Hill said that’s meant a decline in production at Mountaire’s Selbyville facility, which has met some union demands like shutting down the plant temporarily for deep-cleaning last week. A company spokeswoman said they've increased cleaning and sanitation, relaxed attendance policies and given hourly employees raises, among other measures.

“Workers are very afraid that they’re going to be exposed because they do not believe the companies are taking all the measures they can to protect them,” said Hill, who also is the vice president of Delaware State American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

So far, only two companies – Mountaire Farms and Perdue Farms – have publicly confirmed cases: two at Perdue’s Milford plant and one at Mountaire’s Selbyville plant. Allen Harim, which operates a processing plant in Harbeson, did not respond to emails or phone calls.

Hill said officials at Mountaire’s Selbyville plant told the union there have been 16 confirmed cases there. 

“The biggest thing right now is the workers are fearful,” he said. “They don’t feel the company’s being honest with them.”

When those first cases were discovered, Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said infected employees were quarantined and contact tracing was taking place to inform potentially exposed co-workers. The plant was shut down for more than 24 hours for a deep-cleaning, officials said.

"I think it’s too little too late,” said one worker shortly after the temporary plant closure. The employee said they would have preferred that the company, which they said has been a good employer, to shut down that plant for at least two weeks.

When The News Journal asked if reports of additional cases at the company’s processing plant in Georgetown were true, Souder said the company had “decided not to specify every individual case moving forward out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines.”

She said there has been “a limited number of cases” at Perdue facilities, and with each case, the company works closely with state and federal health officials to respond.

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The Perdue chicken plant in Milford remained closed Monday after two employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Employees said it’s nearly impossible to get the job done while keeping 6 feet apart. And with a requirement to wear earplugs in production areas, that means communicating vital work-related information must be done in dangerously close contact, they said.

“It’s gonna be too late for all those employees who keep spreading the virus,” one employee said. “How many cases do [the companies] need to shut down? I don’t think they can hide it.”

Videos and photos shared with The News Journal from inside one plant in Delaware in early April show workers standing and walking closely together, nowhere near 6 feet apart.

Those photographs and videos are not being shared publicly to protect the identity of the source who took them.

“We have a lot of people talking very close in a place that’s not ventilated,” an employee said. “I’m trying to stay safe, be safe for my family.”

Workers sort chicken legs into left and right legs to enter the deboning machine at Allen Harim processing plant in Harbeson.

Despite those efforts, that employee said they tested positive for the coronavirus, and now another family member is sick. That employee said they were never contacted by the company about being potentially exposed, although they had suspected they had been before they were able to get tested.

As employees get sick or refuse to show up for work, some companies are making tough decisions.

At Allen Harim, a South Korea-based company with local headquarters in Millsboro, company officials sent letters to their contract farmers, the people who raise the chickens used for meat, that they would have to “depopulate” some flocks.

A company official said in that letter a 50% attendance rate among workers meant there weren’t enough employees to keep up with the number of chickens that were ready for slaughter.

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Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. said one Delmarva company announced depopulation plans to kill 2 million chickens without producing meat.

A worker operates a deboning machine in 2013 at Allen Harim plant in Harbeson.

Do you work at one of Delaware's chicken plants? Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.