“It was like they were keeping a secret,” said Tara Williams, a 47-year-old worker at the plant, as she described her account of management’s response to the death of her colleague Elose Willis. “It took them about two weeks to just put a picture up, to acknowledge she had died.”
Williams had worked alongside Willis in the “de-boning” section of the plant until she died on 1 April, aged 56. She had spent 35 years at the facility – five days a week, 10 hours a day, 100,000 slaughtered chickens a shift.
Willis was the first Tyson employee to succumb to covid-19 at the Camilla plant, but two others would follow in short succession, a marker of the precarity faced by thousands of meat processing workers pushed to toil, closely packed, on the frontlines throughout the pandemic in plants that have quickly become coronavirus hotspots. At least 20 meat packing workers have died from the virus nationwide and 5,000 have become infected, according to union officials, as close to two dozen facilities closed – some temporarily – over past few weeks.
In interviews with poultry workers in Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi a similar pattern of alleged negligence, secrecy and mismanagement emerged at facilities operated by some of the largest food manufacturers in America. The poultry industry, already the target of a sweeping civil lawsuit describing a systematic effort to depress wages among a workforce that is largely immigrants or people of color, found itself the beneficiary of an executive order issued by Donald Trump on Tuesday.
The president invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to mandate meat processing plants stay open during the pandemic. The White House has been reluctant to use the wartime act, which allows the president to order companies to fulfill work it deems necessary to national security. The DPA was used to push General Motors to make ventilators but few other companies have received such orders.
The move, which essentially labels meat production an essential service, also offers further measures to protect the industry from legal liability should more workers contract the virus. The order came within hours of Tyson, a $22bn company and the world’s second largest meat processor, taking out paid adverts in major US newspapers, including the New York Times, to warn that recent closures of a handful of plants due to the virus could lead to “limited supply of our products”.
For Tara Williams, who has worked at the Camilla plant on the overnight shift as a packing scanner for five years earning $13.55 an hour, Trump’s executive order and her company’s adverts were another blow in her fight for workers’ rights.