‘It’s dog food compared to human life’: Inside a small-town manufacturer struggling with COVID-19

Truck approaching Diamond plant
DIAMOND PET FOOD: The Arkansas plant is one of five facilities operated by the company nationwide. (Credit: Matt White)

The Diamond Pet Food factory in Dumas runs around the clock. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, hundreds of workers process meat, grains and vegetables into dog kibble, bag the finished product and load it by the ton into semi-trailers awaiting pickup. Trucks rumble through the plant’s front gate day and night to haul Diamond products from this Arkansas Delta town to shelves across North America.

The production of dog food never stops, even in a pandemic. Though dozens of the plant’s roughly 200 employees have fallen ill with COVID-19 in recent months, workers say plant management is committed to maintaining business as usual and has never paused or slowed operations.

Diamond is the largest employer in Dumas, a community of about 4,200 located some 90 miles southeast of Little Rock. Like many towns in the Delta, Dumas has suffered from decades of economic decline and outmigration; the population has shrunk by more than a third since 1980. Unemployment is high and stable jobs are scarce.

Workers at the Dumas plant say Diamond pays decent wages and provides good benefits, a rare thing in a county where 25% of people live below the federal poverty line. But many also believe the company’s approach to COVID-19 is putting them at risk.

“I don’t think they’re really stepping up to the plate,” Eddie Madden, a production supervisor, said in an interview last fall. “It’s sad to say, but right now, they’re putting dog food over everything.”

Many workers said they were not notified when new cases appeared inside the plant, creating a climate of uncertainty and fear about who has been exposed to the virus. “We’re all just on pins and needles because we don’t ever know,” said one woman who works at the factory and is in a high-risk group for COVID-19. “I feel like they’re playing Russian roulette with our lives.” Like many people interviewed for this article, she agreed to speak to a reporter on the condition that her name not be used.

Other workers said plant leaders were reluctant to let them quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19, including two who said they were fired for doing so. Some who became ill said management pushed them to return to work before they fully recovered. And six workers said the plant’s human resources manager obtained their private health information from a local hospital, Delta Memorial, without their permission.

Diamond Pet Food did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Plant manager John Farmer hung up on a reporter when reached by phone.

Over the last four months, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network interviewed more than a dozen current and former employees at the Dumas plant. The workers occupy roles in many departments: production, shipping, maintenance, sanitation, quality control and management. They are young and old, male and female. Most, but not all, are Black.

One former manager said the Diamond facility was “doing stuff that’s morally wrong” regarding COVID safety. The manager, who resigned in the fall, said Farmer and other plant leaders often would not notify exposed employees when they found out about new cases. Nor would they notify the rest of the management team, he said.

“They would conceal [cases],” he said. “I would know that people [had been] sick when they came back off of quarantine. Or, I would know they had been tested when they came back and told me. … And I’m like, what is going on?”

‘Workers are really on their own’

The Arkansas Department of Health attempts to track clusters of COVID cases in the workplace, publishing a twice-weekly report listing the locations of businesses with five or more active cases. (The Dumas plant appeared on this list twice, both times in October.) But the health department has limited capacity to keep up with such tracking, raising the question of how accurate its occupational data really is. In its most recent report, the department identified just five workplaces in all of Arkansas with five or more active cases. That same day, Jan. 28, there were 17,547 active cases statewide. 

The health department has recorded 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with the plant as of Jan. 22, according to department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill. All of the cases are closed, she said, meaning the patients have recovered.

However, the former manager said the facility had already surpassed that number by the time he left his job, around three months ago. At that point, he said, the plant had seen 30 to 40 cases in total.

DELTA TOWN: The Diamond plant is the largest employer in Dumas, a town decimated by decades of economic decline. (Credit: Matt White)

So far, the Dumas factory has been spared an explosive outbreak on the scale that has afflicted some manufacturers, such as many meatpacking plants. (In Arkansas, at least nine poultry processing plants have seen more than 200 cases each since the pandemic began, according to a tracker maintained by the New York Times.) But the experiences of Diamond workers illustrate a broader concern about workplace health and safety standards during the pandemic: Employers largely have been left to do as they please.

State and federal health authorities have issued reams of guidance for employers, covering everything from mask usage to social distancing to quarantine policies. Enforcement, however, is another story. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Trump administration did not issue specific rules for most employers to follow regarding COVID-19, according to Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official under President Obama and a director at the National Employment Law Project.

OSHA “essentially shut down as an agency” when the pandemic began, Berkowitz said, performing only a tiny fraction of the number of workplace inspections in 2020 that it normally would. “So, workers are really on their own,” she said.

OSHA may take a different tack under the new administration. On Jan. 21, as one of his first acts in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the agency to increase its enforcement efforts and consider establishing new COVID safety requirements for employers.

In the absence of federal requirements, 14 states have issued what Berkowitz and the National Employment Law Project deemed “comprehensive worker safety protections.” Arkansas is not among them, but Governor Hutchinson has issued executive orders directing Arkansas businesses to follow the state health department’s directives. The health department’s policies for employers include guidelines for how long an employee should quarantine if they have had close contact with an infected person and the process for an employee returning to work after testing positive. 

But it is not clear those guidelines are consistently enforced. Health department officials have limited ability to make employers follow its directives, and the state does not inspect most workplaces for compliance. “We seek to inform and educate employers and can consult with anyone to address questions,” McNeill, the health department spokeswoman, wrote in an email in December. The department has never imposed a penalty on a manufacturer for not following COVID guidance or directives, she said. 

Kept in the dark

Founded in 1970 in Missouri, Diamond is among the largest manufacturers of pet food in the country. It generated $1.5 billion in revenue in 2019, according to a pet food industry website. Diamond operates five plants (two in California and one each in South Carolina, Missouri and Arkansas) and sells its products under brands such as Taste of the Wild, Professional and Diamond Naturals. It also manufactures pet food sold under labels owned by other companies, including Costco’s in-house brand, Kirkland.

Diamond bought the Dumas plant from another pet food manufacturer in 2014, overhauled the facility and began production two years later. The factory now churns out more than 600 tons of pet food every day, according to workers.

Most employees work 12-hour shifts in a massive warehouse where the food is batched, bagged and prepared for shipping. (The kibble itself is milled in a separate building and transported to the main warehouse by conveyor belt.) Unlike in a poultry plant, where workers are often packed tightly together in a line, production workers at Diamond are typically stationed at individual machines spaced more than 6 feet apart, and most parts of the warehouse are well-ventilated, workers said.

Still, occasional face-to-face contact is hard to avoid. Machines often require servicing by the factory’s maintenance crew. Quality control inspectors regularly visit individual workstations. Supervisors and other leaders interact with many workers over the course of a single shift. Sanitation workers rove the building throughout the day and night.

One man who tested positive for COVID-19 last summer said plant management failed to tell many of his coworkers that they may have been exposed. “No contact tracing, no precautions or nothing,” he said.

ALWAYS RUNNING: Trucks come and go from the facility day and night (Credit: Matt White)

The worker was hospitalized for several days due to complications related to COVID-19, he said, and took it upon himself to contact his coworkers directly while he was there.

“I was texting everybody on that shift when I was in the hospital, saying, ‘Yes, I am positive,’ because I knew [the plant leaders] weren’t going to tell them,” he said. “They should have told everybody. They should have got everybody checked.” The worker said he believed at least three others at Diamond became infected because they were exposed to him before he received the positive test.

When a person tests positive, contact tracers working with the state health department attempt to communicate with the person’s close contacts. But that process is sometimes limited or delayed by a shortage of staff, who at times have been overwhelmed by the massive volume of cases in the state. Contact tracers may not always be able to get in touch with the infected person, and the person may not always provide detailed information about their close contacts. A directive issued by the health department last May requires businesses to “assist [Arkansas Department of Health] staff in conducting contact tracing in their facilities, in order to prevent an outbreak from occurring,” and the department contacts an employer if a cluster of cases is identified in a particular workplace. However, employers are not required to notify all employees in the workplace when a new case appears.

In the months since his positive test, the Diamond worker said, plant management has continued to withhold information about new cases from workers who may have been exposed. When he spoke to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network in early December, the worker said at least one person on the maintenance crew had just tested positive, potentially exposing workers all over the plant.

“The only way we found out was that the maintenance guys on night shift were telling us about it,” he said. “So, you never get [information] from the front office.  … You get it from people from the floor.”

The former manager who resigned in the fall said the Dumas plant never developed standards for determining which workers should be notified after a coworker tested positive, resulting in a “totally ad hoc” system.

“They would pick and choose who to notify if at all,” he said.

Close contacts

Multiple workers independently described an incident in early December after the maintenance worker tested positive. Several machine operators who had had their workstations serviced by the worker asked to quarantine when they heard about the new case. Plant management told them to get tested but did not allow them to quarantine while awaiting their results, other workers said.

Madden, the production supervisor, confirmed this account. “The operators who were around [the maintenance worker] — some of them were told they could leave, go get tested and come back to work,” he said.

Others told similar stories. One man said he and four others in his department were told to “come right back to work” after being sent to get tested this fall.

The health department’s quarantine instructions rely on guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which say a person who has been exposed to the virus should stay home while awaiting a COVID test result. That person would be placed under home quarantine for 7 days with a negative test, or for 10 days with no test, if they are free of symptoms. 

The department directs people to quarantine if they have been in close contact with a COVID-positive person, meaning they were within 6 feet of the person for 15 minutes or more. But that leaves plenty of gray area. For example, what if a worker was extremely close to someone for a shorter period of time, or what if the person was not wearing a mask? Employers and employees may not always agree about what constitutes an exposure.

Dr. Richard McMullen, the environmental health director at the health department, said employers and public health workers must balance many factors when trying to determine whether a person has been exposed. Two employees who work on opposite ends of a large building typically would not be considered close contacts, for example. If they eat lunch together every day, that changes things.

You can't just take the definition [of close contact],” McMullen said. “It’s a guide.”

McMullen noted that workers are often alarmed to hear about a new case in the workplace and may wish to quarantine even if they had little or no contact with their infected coworker. The health department encourages anyone who wants a COVID test to get one, he said. But, he added, “if [a worker] just decides he wants to go get tested, that's not an excuse to miss work, necessarily.”

MADE IN DUMAS: Dog food produced at the plant is distributed across North America, workers say. (Credit: Matt White)

Two Diamond workers told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network they were fired for missing work due to concerns over COVID-19 exposure. Donnie Wayne Weston, 41, had worked for Diamond for almost three years as a shuttle driver, hauling empty semi-trailers to the production warehouse to be loaded with bags of food and full ones to be shipped out for delivery. The job involved face-to-face contact with workers all over the plant, he said, as well as with truckers picking up the newly loaded trailers. Last summer, when Weston’s manager told him other employees had tested positive, he decided to quarantine for 14 days against his employer’s wishes.

“I watch the news every morning, and it tells me that there's people dying from this,” he said. “I took matters into my own hands because they wouldn't do it.” When Weston came back to work on Aug. 3, he was surprised to find that he’d lost his job. “I feel that I was let go wrongfully,” he said.

Darren Pullings, 32, who worked night shifts as a loader, was fired in late August. Pullings said he missed work because he was feeling unwell and knew of cases among workers he’d had contact with. Like many, he said he believed Diamond was concealing cases, “just so people would keep coming to work.”

Madden, the production supervisor, acknowledged that some workers may try to get out of work by claiming repeated exposures. “You have people who are going to abuse the system,” he said. “Every time someone comes up positive, they’ve been around them, you know?”

But Madden said he’d rather his shift be understaffed than run the risk of spreading the virus. Other supervisors and managers have different standards, he said, sometimes telling employees to keep coming to work even with a fever. 

“I’m gonna err on the side of caution. I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said. “If I’m short, if my crew’s short — at the end of the day, it’s dog food compared to human life.” 

Testing and privacy

Six workers said they were first informed of their COVID test results in a phone call from Annette Clark, the HR manager. The workers expressed dismay that their employer seemingly had obtained their personal medical information without their consent. All said they were tested at Delta Memorial Hospital, the only hospital in Dumas.

“They called and told me what my results was,” one worker said. “And I asked the question, ‘Now, how you gonna know before me?’ ” According to the worker, Clark told her that someone at the hospital had called and relayed the test result to Clark.

When reached by phone, Clark refused to comment and said the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network should direct all questions to Diamond’s corporate office. A spokesman for Diamond did not respond to questions about the company’s policy regarding workers’ health privacy. 

THE HOSPITAL: Several workers who were tested for COVID-19 at Delta Memorial Hospital said they were notified of their results by plant management. (Credit: Matt White)

Another worker said he preemptively told the hospital to not share his test results with Diamond. “When I went in [for a test], they asked me if I wanted my place of work to get that information, and I told them no,” he said. Yet Clark allegedly notified him of his test results by phone each of the multiple times he was tested (all were negative).

“I just think she’s got a friend over there at the hospital,” he said.

Two employees who tested positive for the virus this fall also said Clark notified them of their results. “I got a phone call from her, Ms. Annette Clark, before the hospital called me,” one said, adding that he never signed a release of information.

Delta Memorial Hospital CEO Ashley Anthony said the hospital required patients to sign a release form before sharing information with their employer. “I am unaware of any circumstances of not following this policy,” Anthony said in an email.

When asked about health privacy and COVID testing, the state health department referred a reporter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A spokeswoman for the HHS Office of Civil Rights said in an email that privacy laws allow medical providers to disclose a person’s medical information to an employer without authorization “in very limited circumstances.” The HHS website says that a medical provider must give the worker “written notice that the information is to be disclosed to his or her employer.”

Dr. Robert Harrison, an expert in occupational medicine and workplace health standards at the University of California, San Francisco, said patient privacy rules around COVID testing fall into a gray area because the situation created by the pandemic is so extraordinary.

“Employers do have a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace,” he said. “So if they send one of their workers to get tested, the employer does need to know if that worker is positive.” In the absence of clear standards from federal agencies such as OSHA and the CDC, he said, companies have been largely left to make their own rules regarding COVID testing and how results are communicated to the employer.

Still, Harrison said, a medical provider should not send a person’s results to their employer directly. “They should be telling the person first about their test results,” he said. “Workers should not be hearing about their results from their managers first.”

‘I’m not feeling no better’

Several workers who became sick with COVID-19 said plant management wanted them to return to work before they had fully recovered. Nathan Ray, 30, a forklift driver, tested positive in early August and was off work for over a month. During that time, he said, he was pushed to come back to work by Clark, the HR manager, even though he was suffering from shortness of breath, dizziness and confusion. Ray said he refused to do so, partly because he worried he was still contagious.

“I’m like, I’m not feeling no better. I’m feeling worse,” he said in an interview in October. “I’m not fixing to get anybody else sick, because they got kids and wives just like I do.” (Ray returned to work in September.)

U.S. Highway 65 outside of Dumas (Credit: Matt White)

Another worker spoke with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network while she was still sick at home with COVID-19 in the fall. “My headaches are so severe that I can’t deal,” she said. “I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I can’t talk loud, I can’t go nowhere.” But, she said, plant management was urging her to return to work. “They want us to do the 14 days and come back to work … no matter how you feel,” she said.

The worker said she was even contacted while she was hospitalized. “They were still calling and saying ‘Are you coming? What’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘I’m in the hospital!’ ”

According to the state’s guidelines, a person with no symptoms can return to work after 10 days have passed since the date of a positive test, but a person should remain isolated if a fever or certain other symptoms persist. For most of the pandemic, an employee was typically not supposed to return to work until cleared to do so with an official release letter by the health department. On Jan. 21, the department abandoned the release letter policy, and it is now up to employers to use the department’s guidance on isolation in determining their own return to work policies.

Berkowitz, the national advocate for workplace safety, said employers’ responses to the pandemic have varied dramatically.

“If you had a workforce that was high wage and unionized, like a lot of the auto industry or the aircraft industry, employers stepped forward and protected workers,” she said. In other industries, such as meatpacking and food processing, “the companies really did not step up in the way they needed to,” she said. Workers in such industries are more likely to be Black or brown, she said, adding to the disparate impact that COVID-19 has had on minority communities. The Dumas plant, like most workplaces in Arkansas, is not unionized.

Some workers noted that Diamond’s position as the largest employer in Dumas gives it leverage over workers, who have few other career options locally. “We’re in southeast Arkansas,” one woman said. “There’s a lot of failing communities about to drop off the face of the earth because there’s no jobs.” She believed Diamond didn’t feel the need to implement stronger safety requirements at the plant partly because so many people in the area are in search of work.

“Don’t dangle my livelihood in the air because you’re not doing right and you want me to be quiet about it,” she said. 

McNeill, the health department spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any complaints sent to the health department by Diamond employees. After the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network contacted the health department with questions about Diamond in October, she said, the department reached out to the company and concluded the Dumas plant was “taking appropriate precautions.”

The Diamond plant (Credit: Matt White)

‘Nobody even cares’

Although Diamond has not responded to repeated emails and phone calls from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, management at the Dumas plant is aware that reporters are asking questions. One Diamond employee shared an email sent by Farmer on Dec. 10 to managers and other staff warning them not to speak to the media. (Most of the interviews conducted for this article were conducted in October, November and early December, before Farmer sent the email.)

“If someone has something to say about how Diamond, Annette or myself are handling the Covid-19 situation, please have them contact Annette or me directly,” Farmer wrote. “We will be glad to share what we are doing and how we handle things in general.”

More than one Diamond employee described feeling disappointed or hurt that the company seemed to be prioritizing production over the safety of its workers during the pandemic.

“You know, being a man, it personally bothers you,” said the worker who was hospitalized for COVID-19 over the summer. “I'm giving my all out here to make this company successful, and then nobody even cares.” He spoke highly of Diamond, noting that it provided excellent benefits and recently paid employees a $1,000 Christmas bonus. But, he said, he felt the company was indifferent when he became sick, despite the fact he’s worked at the plant for many years.

“That's what's getting everybody kind of riled up,” he said. “Because it's like we don't matter. … It's like they let you know you're expendable.”

The former manager who resigned last fall said he was disturbed by what he saw as the lax approach to the pandemic from Farmer, Clark and others running the plant. “I don’t know what their motives were,” he said. “But my opinion is they’re [thinking] ‘Hey, let’s keep the plant running, hell with these people. I ain’t got time to shut down this shift or to bring somebody else in. I ain’t got time for all that shit. Let’s just run this thing.’ ”

Madden, the production supervisor, said he felt “let down” by the company’s response to COVID-19. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “I love my job, love the people I work for.”

He described a conversation he had with Farmer, the plant manager, when cases first started to appear. Madden said Farmer asked him to tell workers that everything was going to be all right at the plant.

“I said, one thing’s for certain and two thing’s for sure: I’m not going to lose the trust I developed with these people over all these years over a lie,” Madden said. “I’m worried about the people out here taking it home to the older people and parents and kids and things of that sort. … This stuff is real.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.