Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘They didn’t tell us anything’: North Carolina poultry plant workers say Butterball isn’t protecting them from COVID-19

Beatriz’s parents contracted COVID-19 after her mother was exposed to the virus in a Butterball plant in rural North Carolina.
Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

This story was published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC, a Spanish-language digital media nonprofit that covers politics, government, immigration, and community affairs in North Carolina. 

Léalo en Español en Enlace Latino NC.

Five to six days a week for 15 years, Nora* has clocked into work at 6:45 a.m. at the Butterball poultry plant in Mount Olive, North Carolina. She slips on a hair net and moves into position on the line as a “trimmer,” pulling bones, washing out the blood, and stripping veins off hundreds of chicken breasts per day. She stands until 3:30 p.m., save for two breaks that should be 30 minutes each. She said they are rarely that long. 

In mid-April, Nora received permission to go home after getting a fever. She felt sick a few days before, but was afraid to ask for a day off even though a coworker in her department supposedly had COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

“Many of us worked shoulder to shoulder with her, but they didn’t tell us anything,” Nora told me in Spanish. “They later said they would stop production to deep-clean, but that was a lie. People were coming into work sick. They are infected and still working.” Another Mount Olive Butterball employee told Univision in early April that he tested positive for the virus and the company took no precautionary measures. Butterball did not provide masks for nearly two weeks after, so workers told me they sold homemade ones to each other for five dollars each.

Leaked documents released by WITN disclosed that up to 52 workers at the Duplin County Butterball plant tested positive. But the company and the North Carolina government won’t confirm the number of cases, leaving communities at risk, confused, and demanding transparency.

Nora is from Mexico and has lived and worked in North Carolina for half her life. She rarely takes a day off. “I told her to ask to go home, because we have heard of several cases in the plant,” her daughter Beatriz said. “But she told me she couldn’t — that it was obligatory for her to work.” Once she went home, her symptoms worsened. Then her husband, who does not work at Butterball, tested positive. Beatriz, 32, and her four children are also feeling sick.

Southerly and Enlace Latino NC interviewed four Butterball workers and several relatives, close friends, and worker advocates for this story, who all say Butterball has given little to no precautionary guidance up until this week despite the high risk for surrounding communities. Butterball workers I spoke to suspected this outbreak for at least three weeks by the time the state reported outbreaks at five unnamed food processing plants on April 21. One worker from the packing department told me it seems five to 10 people are sent home every day. Afraid she contracted COVID-19, she wears a mask at work and at home, and can’t hug her children. 

North Carolina-based meat plants — including Mountaire Farms in Siler City, where over a fifth of workers tested positive — haven’t shut down, although some others around the U.S. have. This week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order for meat-processing plants to remain open, declaring them critical infrastructure as the nation confronts growing disruptions to the food supply chain.

Advocates and workers in North Carolina say the state is slow to take action to protect workers, and groups like the Farmworker Advocacy Network are pressuring Gov. Roy Cooper. On Wednesday, the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, Inc. sent a public letter demanding the state investigate. “Entire families, including children, are contracting the virus due to the parents’ exposure to the virus at work,” it stated. “Many of those parents face a difficult decision between exposing themselves and their families to COVID-19 or becoming unemployed.” 

A sign pointing to the Butterball plant in Mount Olive, North Carolina. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

On an early morning in late April, steady traffic hummed along the two-lane byways around Mount Olive, which straddles the border of Duplin and Wayne Counties in rural eastern North Carolina. Smoke billowed from burning crop fields being prepared for planting season. A brightly painted mural with Guatemala and United States flags on a closed Duplin County storefront gleamed in the sun.  

North Carolina is among the fastest growing Latino populations in the country — nearly 25% from 2010 to 2018 — largely because of the food and agricultural industry in eastern counties. About 12% of Wayne County residents identify as Hispanic; 23% in Duplin County do. Butterball’s facility is the largest turkey processing plant in the world. It employs 3,155 workers, according to spokesperson Jordan Fossali. Many of them are from Mexico and Central America; the company has also drawn large groups of refugees, including a large Haitian community

Mount Olive town manager Charles Brown said there are 26 different languages spoken at the plant. The company offers employees above-minimum wage pay and, often, benefits and paid time off. Nora said she has been given just five days’ pay while recovering at home; the company has stated employees at home sick with  COVID-19 will continue to be paid with benefits. 

A Butterball-branded sign on the road to the plant advertises job opportunities with the words: “Committed to Community!” But workers told me the company isn’t supporting or protecting them from COVID-19. Meat and poultry plants are not required to offer protection for essential workers — only encouraged to follow procedures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A new memo from the Department of Labor and OSHA says state and local authorities are no longer allowed to direct a meat facility to close, and the Labor Department will consider defending meat companies against potential employee lawsuits if they make “good faith attempts” to comply with CDC guidance.

In an email, Fossali said Butterball implemented daily temperature screenings and started requiring employees wear surgical-style face masks in mid-to-late April. “We will continue to aggressively pursue initiatives that best protect our teams while they are at work,” she said. 

Yet leaked cell phone photos Southerly and Enlace Latino NC obtained on April 17 show Butterball employees sitting in a crowded lunchroom. Workers told me it’s nearly impossible to maintain more than two feet of distance there, but supervisors wouldn’t stagger break times. Three other workers said some supervisors were advised to go home after the report of an employee with COVID-19, but they were not permitted to leave and were not given any protective equipment until April 20. (Butterball confirmed this date.)

As of Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed 479 COVID-19 cases at 13 of 200 meat processing facilities in 11 counties. These companies are required to report cases to their local health department, said Ann Watson, public information officer for the agency. Health departments aren’t releasing where the outbreaks are, citing concerns it could identify individuals. Butterball did not answer repeated questions about the exact number of cases at its plants. Fossali said they “have had positive cases of COVID-19 at our Mount Olive and Garner, North Carolina facilities, in line with recent trends in the surrounding counties.”

Tracey Simmons-Kornegay, department head at Duplin County Health Services, said they are reaching out to those who tested positive and their contacts, regardless of language. “This is an evolving situation, to be honest,” she added. “We’re learning as we go. Along with state and federal agencies, we’re working to protect the employees and to protect the food supply.”

The food supply chain is designed to keep products moving, even during a pandemic. Though precautions are now in place, Butterball has made that clear to employees. Workers say a letter — only in English — about coronavirus is posted on the doors of the Butterball facility. One we obtained says the company was aware on April 4 that an employee had tested positive and had been self-quarantined since March 30. It indicates “enhanced and intensified” cleaning processes without detail. “I want to remind you that the job you do is critically important to people everywhere who need to eat,” it states. It is signed by Butterball CEO Jay Jandrain. Nora said another sign indicated workers were allowed to eat lunch outside if they felt uncomfortable. 

“Having to go to a pollera [chicken plant] every day when you don’t have the information to make an educated decision during a pandemic is traumatic,” said Lariza Garzon, executive director of Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, which advocates for workers. “The collective mental health crisis that we are facing in our communities is a real problem. The coronavirus is another layer to the economic crisis after hurricanes, to anti-immigrant policies, to not having food security. We should expect more from the people in charge.”

A closed storefront in Duplin County, with the U.S. and Guatemalan flags. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

Thirty-six hours after Nora was sent home, she and her husband, who works for a small construction company on the coast, went to the Duplin County health department. He tested positive for COVID-19, and a nurse told Nora that she was likely positive, too. “I told her where I worked and she said ‘that place is full of cases,’” Nora told me. She was not tested there, but a private doctor tested her this week.

Their daughter, Beatriz, did not know where to turn. Coronavirus “felt like some distant thing,” she said. “When my mom felt sick, I didn’t believe her. But when my dad’s test came back positive, I felt horrible.” Her parents are legal residents with health insurance, which alleviates some of her concerns, but Beatriz is undocumented, relying on odd jobs for income.

When she started feeling feverish, she went to a clinic in Wayne County. No one there spoke Spanish to her, she said, and a nurse conveyed all the information in English to her husband. They sent her home with a recommendation to take Tylenol and a toll-free number to call in case she felt worse.

She had many questions. “Is it obligatory for me to take the test?” she wondered. “Will it cost me? These are questions I don’t have answers to.” 

Like many undocumented families in rural areas, Beatriz faces food insecurity. She said her children’s elementary school teachers and a school bus driver have been helping them, and has found support from the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, which is serving hundreds of workers and families nearly every week through a food drive, much like it did after Hurricane Florence in 2018. Small nonprofit organizations bear the burden of locating and supporting families. “We’re glad to do it, but we’re talking about a workforce that sustains the state’s economy,” said Garzon. “We would expect the state to have a response and support system to offer these essential workers.”

However, immigrant communities that have made North Carolina home for decades are not consistently supported or acknowledged by elected officials and others in power who could advocate on their behalf, so corporations are continuing to operate at the risk of people’s health, and possibly at the expense of their lives. “They just want us to work and they don’t see we exist in the same community,” Beatriz said. “And many of us are undocumented and now even more afraid.”

The Butterball plant employs over 3,000 people. Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

Nearly 90 meat-packing and food processing plants across the country have COVID-19 outbreaks, with at least 20 reported deaths, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Counties with meatpacking plants, particularly in rural areas, have infection rates much higher than the national average. Beatriz, her mother Nora, and several workers are questioning why Butterball isn’t taking direct measures to keep them safe. Another worker at the Mount Olive plant told me that “as Latinas, we are all scared. If something happens to one of us, it’s going to happen to all of us.” 

Nora cared for her husband for two weeks. His fatigue and fevers keep getting worse. For a few days, he was too pale and lost his appetite. Beatriz is still experiencing mild symptoms, too, including headaches, cough and fatigue. “I worry about myself, my kids, and especially my dad,” she said. “A lot of us will survive this virus, but some die. How will we survive it?” 

She stays in her trailer and doesn’t allow her children outside if others are nearby. During the pandemic, her family has missed four birthdays. But to celebrate her own birthday this week, she ordered a cake from a Mexican baker she knows. It’s something she looked forward to: a layered cake of chocolate, flan, and candied pineapple. On the morning of her birthday, it appeared on her doorstep lacquered in bright pink icing rosettes. Beatriz drove it over to her parents, where the whole family sat distanced from each other in the yard and enjoyed a moment of celebration in the sun. It was the first time they had seen each other in weeks. 

Her mother, Nora, is awaiting COVID-19 test results. She is supposed to go back to work at Butterball on Monday. 

*Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities. 

Victoria Bouloubasis is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in North Carolina, sharing stories throughout the Global South. She is working with Enlace Latino NC as an investigative reporter.