RALEIGH, N.C. — More than 120 labor, farm, environmental, faith and civil rights groups representing millions of people in North Carolina and across the country sent a letter (here in Spanish) today to Governor Roy Cooper, Secretary Cohen, Commissioner Berry, and Commissioner Troxler calling for immediate, comprehensive COVID-19 protections for essential workers in the food supply chain.
More than 3,000 North Carolina workers in meatpacking plants alone have contracted COVID-19, and hundreds of complaints to state health officials have gone unanswered. Despite initially promising a group of Latinx worker advocates that he would issue an executive order protecting workers, Governor Cooper has failed to take action to address this dire situation.
“Workers in North Carolina’s food supply chain face health risks every day this crisis continues, but they show up to do their jobs anyway,” said Edna Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, one of the organizations delivering the letter. “Workers are essential members of our community. They are our family, friends, and neighbors. Governor Cooper needs to do his job and keep his promise to issue an executive order to protect these workers.”
The open letter calls on the state to adopt an emergency standard to protect workers by enforcing requirements for fundamental safety measures such as physical distancing, improved ventilation, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 screening and transparent reporting about cases of COVID-19.
“Because of the fear, we all got sick and we didn’t know what to do. We were scared to speak up because if it was the virus, they would send us back to Mexico,” says a fieldworker from eastern NC who has requested to remain anonymous out of fear for retaliation. “And the truth is that many of us had symptoms, but we didn’t do anything. They didn’t give us masks or any protection on the job … they never tested us. We felt forgotten.”
“Learning about other workers falling ill or even dying around them but not receiving information, care, or benefits can be deadly for workers. The financial pressures they face arriving in the US in debt and the constant fear of retaliation by their employer for causing upheaval may result in their silence despite being sick,” said Lariza Garzon, Executive Director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, “To merely offer guidance during this crisis, as opposed to issuing actual, enforceable base-level requirements, is to ignore the inherent imbalance of power endemic to industries with workers most at risk. We need action now.”
“In times of crisis, we need leaders and leadership requires a moral compass, which means that we actually have to care for our fellow human beings,” said Rev. Fred Clarkson, the Spanish Language Ministry Coordinator of the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina. “Secondly, we also need clarity — there is no dichotomy between the economy and people’s lives. Dead people don’t support economies, living people do. Also, there isn’t a segmentation. If certain people get sick, eventually we will all get sick.”
A family member of North Carolina poultry processing workers says, “My mother was infected at this plant because it didn’t have the necessary precautions. There was no protection, they didn’t require masks, and everyone worked shoulder-to-shoulder … then, when my mother returned to work, everything was the same. They said that they had implemented security measures, and sure, they were checking people’s temperatures when they entered, but everything inside was the same. Everyone was working shoulder- to-shoulder.”
Anna Jensen, Coordinator of the Farmworker Advocacy Network, states, “Since the beginning of this deadly pandemic, North Carolina has prioritized corporate profits and industry relationships over the health of our food workers, their families, and our communities. This must end today. We’re calling on state leaders to take immediate action to protect workers who put their lives on the line while sustaining North Carolina’s largest industries and our food supply.”