Elpidio Espinal Rondon started feeling achy and feverish early this month, but he continued working his graveyard shift at the Bell & Evans poultry-processing plant, where he trims fat off chicken breasts as they rumble down a conveyor belt.
He had no idea that fellow plant worker Arismendi Beras-Mendoza was also ill. His Dominican “soul brother,” who loved dominoes and was friendly with everyone as he plucked stray bits of raw meat off the factory floor, never complained about any COVID-19 symptoms.
It was only after Beras-Mendoza’s sudden death from the coronavirus on April 14 that Espinal Rondon called out sick and got tested. He was positive.
He and his late friend were among a group of workers who traveled to and from work in a van driven by a colleague. Crammed together for the 30-mile drive between their homes in Reading and the plant in Fredericksburg, Lebanon County, none of the workers could keep their distance from one another en route to jobs they couldn’t afford to give up.
Now, one of their group is dead and the rest are sick — eight virus victims in all.
“You can’t imagine how difficult it has been,” said Espinal Rondon, 53, who said he hasn’t been paid since he called out sick. “I’ve been drinking my own tears suffering this virus alone.”
Family-owned Bell & Evans, which specializes in organic, antibiotic-free chicken that’s sold at Whole Foods, is the latest poultry processing company to be swept up in the pandemic. And while the company with 1,800 employees continues to operate, more than a dozen meat-processing plants nationwide, including four in Pennsylvania, have had to close temporarily for deep cleaning because so many employees contracted the virus.
Fearful of meat shortages, President Donald Trump on Tuesday used the Defense Production Act to order meat-processing plants to stay open, a move to limit possible liability for companies whose workers get sick on the job. He took the step days after the chairman of the mammoth meat producer Tyson Foods declared that “the food supply chain is breaking.”
Officials from Bell & Evans did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
Jonn Hollenbach, the chief deputy coroner for Berks County, confirmed that the deaths of Beras-Mendoza and the 88-year-old husband of another worker were due to COVID-19.
The company’s stricken workers also underscore the disease’s spread deeper into rural Pennsylvania and the challenge of controlling the virus in industries where employees toil in close quarters and many low-income workers ride to work together in vans. Berks County’s known coronavirus case count exploded from 369 to 2,600 over the last three weeks, growing faster than any county in the state with at least 100 cases.
Bell & Evans workers who spoke to The Inquirer say they’re scared and want more information on the number of COVID-19 cases at the plant. They believe the company should do more to protect them. The plant is located in Lebanon County, which has a relatively low infection rate. But many of the company’s Latino immigrant workers commute from homes in Reading in Berks County, which has seen a spike in new cases over the last three weeks. Infection rates are based on where people live, not where they work.
Some of the workers belong to Make the Road PA, one of the largest Latinx organizations in Pennsylvania with more than 10,000 members. The group has been advocating on behalf of the Bell & Evans workers since the outbreak began.
Three workers interviewed by The Inquirer said that the company was slow to provide them with face masks or start taking temperatures and that while they’ve been asked to keep a safe distance from one another, it’s nearly impossible on a production line. The workers, who aren’t unionized, also criticized the company for refusing to close the plant for cleaning after Beras-Mendoza’s death at age 67 more than two weeks ago.
Bell & Evans’ problems aren’t unique. Coronavirus outbreaks halted production at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Hazleton, which closed temporarily earlier this month after 130 workers tested positive, and the JBS Beef slaughterhouse in Souderton, where the union steward contracted the virus and died.
Even if food-processing companies disinfect their plants and keep workers a safe distance from one another, employees could still be bringing the coronavirus into their facilities through their mode of transportation to work.
Hazleton Mayor Jeff Cusat recently restricted ride-sharing, saying more than four non-family members cannot drive together. Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, a union representing 35,000 workers at four Pennsylvania meat plants, has also expressed concern about the peril his members face by riding to work together.
“You can enforce all these issues in the workplace, but if how you get to work is not safe, this could be a hazard,” said State Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Hazleton). “How can you have social distancing when you have 15 people in a van?”
Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, would not say whether the state is aware of the Bell & Evans outbreak or has offered any help to contain it. He added that the state has expedited testing for all food-processing plant employees. Neither Lebanon nor Berks Counties has a health department of its own.
A longtime employee of the plant said she first noticed someone sick on the job about a month ago. She wears earbuds to muffle the sound of the 160,000-square-foot factory’s whirring machinery, but she could still hear a woman who arranges pieces of meat on plastic packaging plates loudly coughing.
At first, she thought the hacking was just brought on by an asthma attack, but then the woman started vomiting on the job, and the worker, who asked not to be named because she fears retaliation, knew it was something more serious.
“Some sick workers left and came back healthy. Others who came back are still sick,” the worker said. “People are quitting. People are scared. We’re scared of dying.”
After Beras-Mendoza’s death, supervisors gathered workers in small groups to notify them and announce new safety protocols like staggered breaks and more frequent hand-washing. But the employee, who has worked at Bell & Evans happily for 15 years, said she won’t feel safe until the plant undergoes a deep cleaning.
She cited one fellow employee who has diabetes, one of the conditions that make people more susceptible to a deadly bout of the virus. She knows of two workers on the day shift who are hospitalized now.
“If we get sick, they should pay us. That’s the least they can do,” said the worker, who shared that her pay has increased to $15 an hour since the start of the pandemic.
Workers say many of their sick colleagues labor in Plant 1, where Bell & Evans slaughters chickens using a technique called slow induction anesthesia. The massive facility on U.S. Route 22 has two connected plants.
First the chickens are slowly made unconscious with gas, then they’re hung on a moving line where blades cut their neck. Company president Scott Sechler has compared the process to a human getting anesthesia before surgery and never waking up. He previously told The Inquirer that the process is more humane and leads to a better-quality meat.
In Plant 1, workers select birds to sell whole, and carve and trim ones that are sold for their breasts and thighs.
Rafael Ferreiras’s stepmother works in Plant 1, where she carves chicken legs.
When he first learned about the coronavirus, Ferreiras, 57, made his 88-year-old father with high blood pressure promise not to leave his home in Reading, one of the nation’s poorest cities of its size. (Ferreiras and his father share the same name.) And for six weeks, things were fine. But Ferreiras hadn’t considered the danger of his stepmother continuing to report to work at Bell & Evans.
She kept working even after she started feeling sick because she was afraid she would lose her job if she called out, said Ferreiras. And on several occasions, she made the 30-mile commute to and from work in the same van as Espinal Rondon and Beras-Mendoza.
When his father started struggling to breathe, Ferreiras’ stepmother urged her husband to go to the hospital, but the stubborn old man with a bald head and a sweet smile who had worked as a carpenter in the Dominican Republic refused. Ferreiras eventually called an ambulance. His father lived only three days after being admitted to Reading Hospital.
“We feel so bad that we lost him. We thought he was safe over there. We just found out he wasn’t,” said Ferrerias, who works in construction.
Ferrerias doesn’t blame his stepmother for getting sick at work. He blames Bell & Evans for not doing enough to keep workers safe.
Another Bell & Evans employee who lives in Reading and rode in the van with workers who contracted the virus said he started noticing cold symptoms the week before Easter. He asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation from his employer.
He didn’t see a doctor right away and instead tried the home remedies that have always soothed him — aspirin, orange juice, salt-water gargles, and lemony steam.
When the worker learned that Beras-Mendoza had fallen ill, he called to suggest his friend try some of the remedies he had seen cure the sick many times since his childhood. But he never heard back. Beras-Mendoza died on April 14, the day before new rules were enacted statewide to protect essential workers just like him.
The home remedies made the other worker feel better, but they were no protection. Almost two weeks ago, he tested positive himself and has been staying away from the plant since then.
Despite the tragedy that's enveloped his colleagues, he's eager to go back to work as long as it's safe.
“I am no one” of importance, he said. “But they need to take precautions so we don’t continue to get sick.”