Foster Farms, one of the West Coast’s largest producers of poultry, is facing scrutiny for new clusters of coronavirus infections at its facilities in California’s Central Valley, which follow a months-long, deadly outbreak this year.
California-based Foster Farms has reported that at least 193 people at its Cherry Avenue plant in Fresno have tested positive for the coronavirus over a recent two-week period, as have 12 people at a nearby plant on Belgravia Avenue. And a union official said at least 37 workers at the company’s Livingston complex in Merced County have tested positive since Nov. 30.
With about 1,000 people working at the Cherry Avenue facility in Fresno, that penciled out to about 20% of that plant’s workers testing positive, the company said. The plant was closed last weekend for deep cleaning and reopened this week.
The disclosures come after a long-lasting coronavirus outbreak at the Livingston facility over the summer left nine workers dead. And, union officials allege, the company isn’t meeting its obligation to share information about the current Livingston outbreak.
Foster Farms told The Times on Tuesday that 21 Livingston workers had tested positive for the virus in a recent two-week period. About 1,900 tests had been administered at that plant during that period, and roughly 4,000 people work at that facility.
But under emergency rules newly enacted by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, companies are required to keep track of all coronavirus cases among their employees and make a detailed log available to workers and their representatives. In major outbreaks — which Cal/OSHA defines as 20 or more cases within a 30-day period — employers are also required to evaluate ventilation and other conditions that could be driving transmission.
Elizabeth Strater of the United Farm Workers union, which represents employees at the Livingston plant, said union officials have repeatedly asked the company for details about the outbreak. She said the company provided a brief email citing 37 cases as of Thursday night but no detailed log.
“This is the sequel to a real-life horror story with no happy endings,” Strater said. “Workers at Foster Farms have reported no information being shared.”
The Central Valley has faced a rapid increase in coronavirus hospitalizations lately. Nearly 500 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Fresno County, a number substantially higher than during the summertime surge, when no more than 313 coronavirus patients were hospitalized at any given time. Merced County has seen a quadrupling of COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks.
Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill said Tuesday that given the regionwide surge, at least some of his workers probably were infected in the community — or perhaps while carpooling to work — rather than in the factories.
He said the company is cooperating with Fresno County health officials to determine whether the virus is spreading within the plant and whether additional health and safety measures need to be taken.
Brill said the company has instituted a stringent policy of testing and screening employees for symptoms and has implemented “every mitigation that has been recommended” by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such measures include installing plexiglass dividers in the workplaces, staggering employee breaks, providing masks to workers and continuously cleaning worker areas.
“Our strategy is to test people” to identify asymptomatic cases and send those workers home “so they can protect the health of the people that are in the plant,” Brill said.
On Friday, Brill said he was tied up in meetings for the rest of the day and was unavailable to respond to the union’s allegations about the Livingston site.
Meatpacking plants have been identified across the nation as high-risk workplaces for coronavirus transmission. The CDC reported in July that among 23 states reporting outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities, there were more than 16,000 coronavirus cases and 86 deaths associated with 239 facilities. Of those infected, 87% were people of color. CDC officials recommend increasing space between workers, encouraging workers to take sick leave when needed, encouraging hand hygiene and the use of face coverings and screening workers for infection.
The workers at the Livingston plant are predominantly Latino and Punjabi Sikh, said Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a Central Valley youth and family nonprofit aimed at the Punjabi Sikh community. Many of his group’s members work at Foster Farms plants.
“Why do we continue to see outbreaks at the same places if safety measures have been put in place?” Singh said. “What we actually know is that this virus — the virility is compounded by the conditions that are there at the poultry factory, with people working in really cramped quarters.”
“Unless we have a larger conversation about … safety for these workers, we’re continuously putting them in jeopardy. And many of these workers are older immigrants, live in multigenerational households and have other comorbidities,” Singh said.
A family member of a Foster Farms worker in Fresno who recently tested positive for the coronavirus told The Times that company communication has been poor and primarily in English, even though many in the workforce have limited English proficiency. The family member asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. Community leaders also told The Times that the company has been asking employees to work overtime to keep production lines running amid absences.
Labor experts have questioned whether government officials are doing enough to protect workers from COVID-19. In the San Joaquin Valley, only one county public health department — in Merced County — is publicly identifying workplaces where outbreaks occurred, and even there, the information shared is limited and does not list the number of people infected, said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
Padilla welcomed newly passed laws intended to protect workers from COVID-19. Assembly Bill 685 will require employers to share with workers if they were exposed to the coronavirus and notify public health agencies, and Assembly Bill 2043 will require Cal/OSHA to make agricultural workplace safety investigations public.
Those rules need to be followed by robust and strategic enforcement, Padilla said: “If they’re not implemented and enforced widely, then it’s not going to mean much.”