Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

As N.C. poultry plants failed to curb COVID-19, Latina workers stood in the gap

Esmeralda leads a meeting with fellow community health workers at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry about their outreach impact in rural Latino communities over the course of spring 2021. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

With little to no protection from their employers or the state during the pandemic, a mother-daughter community health worker duo has helped launch and lead vaccination events. 

This story, published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC, is also available as a podcast episode on Living Downstream. The mother and daughter lead the story in Spanish, without overdubbing. 

Blocking the bright sun with one hand and holding a clipboard with the other, Esmeralda waves through carloads of people driving up to a rural vaccination clinic in Dunn, N.C. She cheerfully greets each car in Spanish: “¡Bienvenidos! ¿Cómo le podemos ayudar?”

She directs those with an appointment to the parking lot, offering a box of fresh produce and a gift card to pay for their gas. She adds those without a secured time slot to the waiting list and points to where they can find homemade snacks, like taquitos, while they wait by a loudspeaker playing cumbia. 

Multiple times a week at vaccination clinics for primarily Spanish-speaking food industry workers in eastern North Carolina, Esmeralda runs the show.

This summer, women like Esmeralda and her mother, Marta—who are both using only their first names for fear of their safety and job security—have taken the reins in their home of Duplin County and surrounding areas as community health workers, or “promotores de salud,” public health workers funded by the CDC

The mother-daughter team started in 2020 by bringing megaphones to mobile home parks where poultry plant workers lived, handing out masks and hand sanitizer. Now they are organizing more formally within the community by knocking on doors and educating neighbors about the COVID-19 vaccine with support from the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, a nonprofit serving workers in 10 North Carolina counties. Marta doles out information to her colleagues at the poultry plant where she cuts chicken five to six days a week.

Esmeralda trained her mother to be a community health worker. But Marta comes to this work with a wealth of experience from her time as a military nurse in Mexico before emigrating to the U.S. to earn better pay. She said community health workers like her can “cultivate a trust” with Latinx people that doesn’t come as easily for non-Spanish speakers.

“It’s basically saying, ‘I am just like you.’ We’re out here speaking the same language,” Marta said.

A year ago, however, the entire family struggled through weeks of quarantine when Esmeralda and her four children contracted COVID-19 from Marta, who brought home the virus after contracting it at the poultry plant.

Marta’s husband came down with such a severe case that it kept the entire family on edge. Esmeralda did not think that her stepdad, the only father she had ever known, was going to make it. “Unfortunately, COVID affected my family because of the misinformation coming out of that poultry plant,” Esmeralda said.

Marta said that plant supervisors lagged in providing adequate protections and information on outbreaks at plants, and rumors spread quickly when someone missed a shift. 

In the summer of 2020, a steady uptick in COVID-19 cases gave Duplin County, where Esmeralda and Marta live, the highest COVID-19 case rate in the state. Experts attributed to the several meatpacking and poultry plants in the region. The food industry was under scrutiny throughout the pandemic as the coronavirus spread through plants. Without stringent regulation or clear enforcement, the biggest corporations got away with minimal protections on the job, at the expense of vulnerable workers’ health and, in many cases, their lives.

Video by Bridgette Cyr

In October 2020, several advocates petitioned the N.C. Dept. of Labor to adopt an emergency rule to protect meatpacking and poultry plant workers from infection. N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry rejected the request in the final weeks of her two-decade tenure. In a press release she stated: “The virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.”

But official statistics show the opposite. According to a report updated by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services in June 2021, 42 COVID-19 clusters have been reported in meat and poultry facilities since April 2020, resulting in more than 5,000 associated cases within surrounding communities. The data shows 23 deaths as a result.

Leah Douglas at the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has been documenting COVID-19 cases among food system workers in the U.S. since April 2020. Her team dug up an email trail in December that revealed COVID-19 cases were 75% higher at 10 North Carolina plants than what had been previously reported.

To find the data, Douglas pored over local news reports, made records requests, and interviewed workers and union reps. According to FERN, as of July 7, at least 91,199 workers (58,898 meatpacking workers, 18,624 food processing workers, and 13,677 farmworkers) have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 465 workers (297 meatpacking workers, 60 food processing workers, and 107 farmworkers) have died. 

Douglas said that her findings are almost certainly an undercount.

“Much of this happens outside of the public eye most of the time,” Douglas said. “I think this was a really valuable and important moment for media and advocates and whoever else to shine a light on how interconnected all of these different parts of the food system are.”

Chickens run loose in Mount Olive, North Carolina. Esmeralda says all of her Latino friends have at least one family member working in a poultry plant, like her mother, Marta. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Marta at home in Mount Olive, North Carolina.
(Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Plants haven’t been clear with employees about the vaccination rollout either. Marta said that for a full month no one at the poultry plant advised workers about how to get vaccinated. After suffering through COVID-19, she didn’t want to wait. So she turned to her daughter Esmeralda, who knew exactly how to sign her up for the vaccine in April. 

Vaccination events like the ones Esmeralda leads with the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry have become crucial to Latinx communities. Marta, part of a working class and ethnic group disproportionately affected by COVID-19, was among the first people in North Carolina to get vaccinated. But that had nothing to do with her risk or her job, deemed as “essential work” during the pandemic—it was because she and Esmeralda became community health workers, which bumped them up to frontline status.

Duplin County Health Director Tracey Simmons-Kornegay said the health department partnered with several food processing employers to do on-site vaccinations for workers from the end of February through the end of May. They’ve also teamed up with nonprofit organizations like AMEXCAN and NC FIELD to coordinate public events. However, Simmons-Kornegay said in an email that her department has not been on-site at plants since the end of May, and that these events must be requested by employers.

According to Christa Leupen, a spokesperson at the poultry producer Butterball, the company has “offered six on-site vaccination clinics across multiple work shifts, and successfully vaccinated 600 team members” at the Duplin County processing plant in Mount Olive. Butterball currently employs 2,800 people at that facility.

At House of Raeford in Rose Hill, a poultry plant also in Duplin, spokesperson Dave Witter said COVID-19 vaccines were administered by the health department on site at two events in March and April. Families of employees had the option to get vaccinated as well. He said the company employs approximately 1,700 people in North Carolina between two processing plants and one live production facility. 

House of Raeford did not provide the number of vaccines administered at the events, saying the health department was in charge of that data. Witter added that the company is considering a summer vaccination event “if there is interest from our employees.” 

Despite the hard data and community anecdotes potentially accounting for more COVID-19 cases in poultry plants throughout the pandemic, the state and local health departments, the state labor department, and employers haven’t reported continued plans for vaccinating workers. 

The health department has not counted how many poultry workers have been vaccinated in the county, either. “That’s a hard question to answer,” Simmons-Kornegay said. “The reason for that is employees at these plants may have chosen to get it at one of our other sites, whether it’s at one of our churches or one of our other community events that we’ve had.”

Duplin County, North Carolina, is home to at least five large meatpacking and poultry plants where the majority of workers are people of color. The county is 23% Hispanic and 25% Black. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Esmeralda hosts a cookout with Latino friends and neighbors in Mount Olive, North Carolina, to celebrate her two oldest children’s birthdays. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Esmeralda and Marta are deeply committed to their community and its growth after rooting their families in Duplin County for decades—despite what’s stacked against them. Mount Olive, or Monte Olivo as Esmeralda calls it, boasts lush green landscapes and idyllic views. It’s a place with bilingual handwritten signs on the side of the road touting livestock for sale, where Esmeralda’s kids play in competitive soccer leagues, and where church parking lots are packed during Spanish-language mass.

But it’s all too rare to hear firsthand the stories of women poultry plant workers in North Carolina standing up for themselves and their families. For immigrants who don’t speak English or who live precariously as undocumented workers, the risk to speak out is extreme. 

The food industry is entangled with environmental issues, labor, public health, and the general well-being of Southern communities. Whether workers are toiling in the fields in record heat waves or slicing through meat hours on end in frigid factories, their lives are at risk in dangerous environments created by systems upholding profit and supported by lax labor protections.

Almost every family Esmeralda knows has someone who works in the food industry—many in the fields picking tobacco and vegetables, others at the five large meatpacking and poultry plants spread throughout the county. Marta said no one that works on the factory floor at her plant is white. 

Nearly a quarter of Duplin County residents are Latinx, making it the rural county with the largest Latinx population in North Carolina. It is also more than 25% Black, which includes African-American residents as well as a large population of Haitian refugees.

Shorlette Ammons, who is Black, grew up in Duplin. Her family has been rooted there for generations. 

“Growing up the pace felt slow, but also I don’t remember having a desire for it to be anything else,” she said.  “Personal time was spent with family. And I remember food being the center of it all. The relationship was work and we all worked at the same places.”

Her two aunts have each been working in poultry plants for more than 30 years. Last year, Ammons wrote an essay for Bitter Southerner inspired by their work: “My Family Pays the Price for America’s Chicken Dinner.” 

“There’s an intense work ethic […] within a system that is constantly unfair to us,” Ammons said about her aunts’ commitment to the plants despite the working conditions. “I feel like it’s just that caretaking quality. Particularly older Black women and older Latina women share this kind of innate loyalty [to their work]. It’s this expectation of [a] superwoman mode of being, which doesn’t allow for Black women to be their whole selves and actually speak to the conditions they are living with every day.”

Esmeralda, community health worker in Mount Olive, North Carolina. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Lariza Garzón, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, is among few public-facing Latina leaders in eastern North Carolina. “All of these environmental crises for many people with more privilege are kind of like something that they think about intellectually. But they are very hard realities for these workers,” she said.

“Our advocacy has been done primarily to get protections for workers so that they have tools to raise their voices when things are not going right at work,” she added. “It’s no use for people to take care of their health in their personal life if they go to work and conditions are not optimal and they’re having to work shoulder to shoulder with other folks.”

Garzón met Esmeralda in 2018, when Esmeralda sought aid from the organization after Hurricane Florence damaged her home. She said Esmeralda “directed us towards other people in the community who also needed help,” and they identified her as a potential leader for the ministry. 

“There has been a lot of growth during the pandemic because Esmeralda has been able to lead the [community health worker] program,” Garzón said. “People trust her.”

When she came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, Esmeralda said she didn’t see any opportunities. She didn’t speak English and had multiple experiences with racism. But now, she said, “my perspective as a community leader has changed me.”

Video by Bridgette Cyr

After a year and a half of persistent public pressure by workers and advocates during the pandemic, not much has changed at the state or federal level to require companies to offer better protections. 

“We witnessed people helping each other in ways that agencies and organizations weren’t helping them,” Garzón said. “My hope is that this interest in the population will continue after COVID and that workers will get dignified wages, dignified working conditions. That they will have access to healthcare and to resources in the same way that other people with more privilege do.”

She hopes her organization can grow more leaders like Esmeralda, rather than become a de facto place for basic needs.

 “I hope that the ministry can become a community center where people can develop projects and be creative and not because they’re in need of basic things like food.”

Esmeralda keeps a sharp focus on her working-class community and what they need—especially after the pandemic. 

“All of the food that we bring into our homes is coming from people who can’t secure their own food,” she said. “COVID brought this country’s social inequities to light. We’re a vulnerable community and we need support. We also think we are alone, because I myself have felt it, too. But now I realize it’s time to lift our voices. It’s time to take action.”

Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

Bridgette Cyr is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and audio producer currently based in Durham. 

The partners who made this story possible include Northern California Public Media, Mensch Media, Southerly, and Enlace Latino NC. Additional support provided by National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists and Solutions Journalism Network.