George’s and other midsize poultry companies struggled to control COVID-19

NO COMMENT: George’s corporate headquarters, on the right, loom over the company’s processing complex in Springdale, Arkansas, where nearly 300 of its workers have tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo credit: Olivia Paschal, Facing South)

This story was first published by Facing South.

Since late spring, when COVID-19 cases began to surge in meat processing plants around the country, large poultry processors such as Tyson Foods have come under public fire for failing to protect their workers. But smaller poultry companies in Arkansas and across the South have had the same problems — and faced much less scrutiny.

Five companies control roughly 60% of the U.S. chicken industry: Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (owned by JBS of Brazil), Koch Foods (no relation to Koch Industries), Perdue and Sanderson. More than 11,000 Tyson employees nationwide have contracted the virus since March, by far the most of any meat processing company.

However, the industry also includes a handful of midsize producers — such as Wayne Farms, Mountaire and George’s, Inc., based in Springdale — along with many smaller ones. Workers and advocates interviewed by Facing South over the last several months said that small and midsize poultry processors have struggled just as much, and sometimes more, to counteract the pandemic — often taking longer to implement fewer safety measures than their larger counterparts. 

"They are less accountable to the public, to anyone, not as accountable as Tyson can be. And even though it's hard to make [Tyson] accountable, at least we can push them and expose them, and that hurts their image," Magaly Licolli, an organizer with the Arkansas poultry worker advocacy group Venceremos, told Facing South.

More than 2,150 employees of small and midsize poultry processing companies in the South have tested positive for the virus since March, according to a Facing South analysis of data collected by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN). That is likely an undercount, because many companies are not publishing data on positive cases, and many states are not releasing numbers on COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities.

Arkansas, which publishes more comprehensive data than many of its neighbors, has reported a number of sizable COVID-19 clusters in plants run by small and midsize processors. At George's flagship facility in Springdale, 290 employees have contracted the virus. One-quarter of the workforce at a Wayne Farms plant in Danville tested positive. Other Arkansas facilities at which more than 50 workers have tested positive include a Southeast Poultry plant in Rogers, an OK Foods plant in Fort Smith, three Simmons Foods plants and two Peco Foods plants. According to information provided to Facing South by the Arkansas Department of Health, two Peco Foods plants and four Simmons Foods plants have had at least five cases since Sept. 17.

"Usually these smaller companies are even worse — because they are almost completely non-union," Debbie Berkowitz, the worker health and safety director at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), said in an email. The poultry industry has historically relied on the labor of Black people, poor white women, and, more recently, immigrants, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. 

Facing South reached out to every small and midsize chicken processor that has plants in Arkansas with confirmed COVID-19 cases and that makes company contact information publicly available. None of the companies responded to questions about safety measures and total case numbers in their plants.

'We don't matter to them'

That includes George's Inc. A privately held company based in Springdale, George's is currently led by twin brothers Carl and Charles George and has been owned by four generations of the family. According to a 2015 Food Business News profile, the company employs 4,800 people, a number that has almost certainly grown since then due to the company's 2018 acquisition of Ozark Mountain Poultry, another Arkansas-based producer. George's is the ninth-largest poultry producing company in the U.S.

At least 641 George's workers have tested positive for COVID-19 across its facilities in Arkansas and Missouri, according to data compiled by FERN. The actual number across all of George's facilities, which include plants in Tennessee and Virginia, is almost certainly larger than that. Virginia's health department does not report COVID-19 case numbers by specific facility, and Tennessee does not release data on COVID-19 outbreaks in its poultry sector.

In late summer and early fall, Facing South interviewed five then-current George's employees and several former employees. Every current employee Facing South interviewed expressed concern with the company's COVID-19 response. Belinda Mayo, George's vice president of marketing, did not respond to repeated detailed requests for comment from Facing South. Kenny Sandlin, the company's senior director for environmental health and safety, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

George's COVID-19 case numbers spiked in late spring. In April, as workers circulated petitions calling for the company to implement safety measures and hazard pay, George's received waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowing them to increase the line speed in two of their plants, one in Springdale and the second in Cassville, Missouri. Two of its other plants — an Ozark Mountain Poultry plant in Batesville and a George's plant in Edinburg, Virginia — already had these waivers. (The USDA granted waivers to 13 other poultry plants across the country in April, including a Wayne Farms facility in Danville and a Tyson plant in Waldron.) 

Line speeds are one of the primary obstacles to social distancing in meatpacking plants; moving workers farther apart from each other would necessarily slow the speed of processing chicken, meaning a plant would produce less overall. Workers' advocates have said since the start of the pandemic that safety measures which do not take this into account are not enough. But, in reports published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry, not a single poultry company told the CDC that they have slowed line speeds to protect workers. In September, a FERN analysis found that plants with line speed waivers were more likely to have outbreaks than those without. Both George's facilities that got waivers in April have had dozens of COVID-19 cases.

The poultry industry in Northwest Arkansas employs a large number of Marshallese workers, and in June, Eldon Alik, consul general for the Marshall Islands, emailed representatives of poultry processing companies including George's. Alik asked the companies to shut plants down to stem the high numbers of cases and deaths facing his community. They never did. In an August interview, Alik said that most of his conversations with poultry representatives following the email involved making sure that Marshallese employees were being paid for time spent in quarantine.

"My perspective of George's has changed [during COVID-19] because I realized as workers, and human beings, we don't matter to them," Yolanda, a worker at the Springdale plant, told Facing South in Spanish. (Current George’s employees are identified by pseudonyms in this story to protect them from workplace retaliation.) 

Workers said that employees suspected of circulating the April petition faced retaliation or hostility from management. George's did not respond to questions about how it handles worker complaints.

Yolanda and other employees said they were concerned about the length of time it took for the company to provide or even require face masks on the processing line. This basic safety measure wasn't implemented until April 28, more than a month into the pandemic and the day after Facing South asked the company why workers were not required to wear masks.

"They barely gave us masks… [and only then] because we were demanding that they give us protection," another worker at George's in Springdale, said in Spanish.

Employees said George's only provided workers with cloth neck gaiters. George's did not answer Facing South's questions about what kind of PPE it is providing to employees, but some employees said they double up on masks, wearing one from home in addition to their company-provided neck gaiter.

An example of George's company-provided face covering. (Photo credit: Olivia Paschal, Facing South)

Workers told Facing South that they didn't feel confident they were getting the whole picture of COVID-19 cases in the plant. In the spring, some told Facing South they heard through the rumor mill — not from management — that employees near them on the processing line had tested positive for the virus. 

"They had said that there weren't more than four cases, and when they announced those four cases, they didn't tell us, [only] the people who work next to them on the line found out," Yolanda said. George's did not respond to questions from Facing South about how it informs workers of possible exposure to COVID-19.

Several George's employees told Facing South that the company does not always pay workers in quarantine — often paying for quarantine days only if employees end up testing positive for the virus, not if they quarantine and ultimately test negative. The company says on its website that employees with "extended absences" due to COVID-19 can access paid leave through short-term disability, and that a "similar benefit" is available to employees who "may be directed to self-quarantine" if exposed.

"I think they just don't want to pay nobody," said James Barber, a former George's employee. He told Facing South that he spent a week in quarantine after being exposed over the summer and tested negative. He estimates he lost about $600 in income. Barber lost his job in early fall after the company said he missed too many days of work and now works at another nearby poultry plant. 

Fernanda, another employee who asked that her real name be withheld, told Facing South in an August interview conducted in Spanish that "it's not worth it to get tested … They do not pay you for time away from work if you're getting tested and quarantining. That's why a lot of workers are refusing to go get tested, for fear of a week with no pay." George's did not respond to specific questions about Barber's situation or about company policy regarding pay during quarantine.

Like many other poultry companies, George's holds its workers to a point system: Workers are docked points for clocking in late for a shift or missing a shift for a number of reasons. Workers told Facing South they have received points for missing work due to doctor visits, family illnesses and even funerals. Lose a certain number of points and a worker faces termination. During the pandemic, attendance policies like this have come under intense scrutiny because they incentivize workers to come to work even if they are sick.

"Instead of receiving benefits, we get more pressure," Yolanda said. "If we arrive even a minute late to the line, they immediately give us points."

Workers also have little opportunity for collective organizing. Right-to-work laws in states such as Arkansas are one reason the poultry industry has such a firm foothold in the South. While there are some unionized plants, most of the region’s plants remain non-union and discourage unionization efforts.

In addition, OSHA has been largely absent during the pandemic. The agency has fined some meatpacking plants over workplace conditions during the pandemic, but none are in the South. The COVID-19 guidance OSHA developed for meatpacking plants is just that — voluntary guidance, not enforceable regulations.

Many workers are also afraid to speak out about workplace conditions because of the constant threat of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, like those that occurred at seven plants in rural Mississippi last year. The plants ICE raided were almost all operated by small poultry companies, including Peco Foods, Pearl River Foods and PH Foods. Smaller companies have a reputation of being more willing to hire undocumented workers than their larger counterparts, though experts say large companies have not abandoned the practice. 

"Most of them hire undocumented," Licolli, the Arkansas organizer, said. "And the conditions are similar [to larger plants] — lack of bathroom breaks, line speeds, discrimination — but it's heightened in these plants because they use more intimidation and retaliation to force workers to produce, and they just take advantage of the power dynamic."

"We have done a lot; we have fought, gone into management, and voiced our concerns," Fernanda said. "But it's all for nothing because nothing has changed."

This story was first published by Facing South.

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