SPECIAL REPORT: With few options, meatpacking workers risk their lives on the job

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All this week, KCBS Radio is bringing you stories of one of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic: the people who grow, harvest and pack our food. In part one, a nonprofit manager reveals how he pivoted his organization when needs changed drastically. In part two of this special series, Kathy Novak speaks with workers who have little choice but to risk their lives.

At a vigil in Livingston earlier this month, community members lit candles to remember the lives lost in a COVID outbreak at the Foster Farms poultry processing plant.

Nine workers have died and about 400 have been infected.

Deep Singh, Executive Director of the non-profit Jakara Movement, says with Merced County among those identified as a COVID hotspot, almost everyone knows someone who has been infected or even died.

“I’ve been to funerals,” he told KCBS Radio. “It’s the worst possible loss because when they’re in the hospital taking their last breaths they’re not even with their families.”

Esthela Salvaña works in packing for Foster Farms.

“I am proud of my work because we feed people who need it,” she told KCBS. “But I also feel sad because we are not taken care of.”

She got COVID in June. Her husband, who also works for the company, caught it too.

Her colleague Jesus Ruiz is a forklift driver. He has worked at Foster Farms for almost three decades for minimum wage.  He says he is worried about becoming exposed to different people at work.

“Foster Farms uses contractors,” he told KCBS Radio. “Some come for a week, then then they leave. The next week, other people come.”

The poultry plant was ordered to temporarily close because of the outbreak.

In a statement provided to KCBS Radio, Foster Farms said during the weeklong closure, the plant underwent a deep cleaning and employees were tested as part of a comprehensive program to ensure employee safety.

The plant was allowed to reopen on Sept. 7.

Salvaña says she wishes the new protocols had been there earlier.

“They should have given us powerful, protective masks so that we didn’t get sick,” she said. “There should have been social distancing, but it wasn’t like that.”

Singh says it is part of a nationwide crisis.

According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, more than 42,000 workers at about 500 meatpacking plants have been infected.

“The reason the meat production plants are hotspots throughout the country is because of the concentration of labor. It’s because of the conditions,” Singh said, “And it’s because you just have people literally working shoulder to shoulder and you have not seen management make the necessary steps to alleviate that.”

Foster Farms says it is increasing social distancing measures and has installed dividers where distancing is not practical. Employees with symptoms are being told to isolate.

Now that she is back at work, Salvaña’s plea to her co-workers is, “do not come to work if you feel sick because you can infect others.”

Edward Flores, a Sociology Professor at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center says for many low-paid workers in essential industries around the Central Valley, staying home may not be an option.

“They may have to choose between losing their job, being evicted, starving, or showing up to work with symptoms and possibly infecting others,” he said.

Part three looks at the new challenges facing the families who pick our fruit