FREDERICKSBURG, Pa. — Chicken is king in this working-class central Pennsylvania town of faded storefronts, thanks to the pricey organic birds processed here in two sprawling factories by Bell & Evans, the region’s largest private employer.
The company, which sells its “air-chilled” breasts and thighs to Whole Foods and other supermarkets, has been expanding aggressively and now employs 1,800 largely Latino laborers who hail from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, a workforce bigger than the town’s mostly white population.
The work can be grueling. Chickens are moved through production lines at a breakneck pace as they’re killed, cut into parts, and wrapped for sale.
But for years, workers have moved to nearby Lebanon because they found stable jobs with good pay at Bell & Evans, known in the community by its corporate name, Farmers Pride. “People say if you live in Lebanon and have never worked on Farmers Pride, then you don’t live in Lebanon,” said Cesar Liriano, 44, a community leader who worked there about a decade ago.
Now, the sense of security that came with a Bell & Evans position is evaporating as the coronavirus sweeps through this part of the state. The company that fostered so many immigrants’ American dreams is increasingly viewed as a source of infection that has killed at least three people and sickened many others. No one knows just how many.
About a dozen Bell & Evans workers, their relatives, and community leaders say the company sometimes prioritizes efficient production over employees’ health. Workers who contracted the virus were pressured to return before they fully recovered, these sources say. And some employees believed they were still contagious when they went back because they tested positive a second time days later, several people said.
The allegations of management insensitivity recall those in a recent federal lawsuit brought by a worker who said her supervisor forced her to stay on the de-boning line after she injured a shoulder so badly that she needed surgery.
At the same time, the company is grappling with a salmonella problem that has worsened since January, when federal food safety inspectors first detected unsafe levels of the bacteria in Bell & Evans’ ground chicken. The most recent testing shows that Bell & Evans is the only poultry processor in Pennsylvania with high levels of salmonella in two products, ground chicken and chicken parts.
Inspectors routinely test meat for salmonella because it sickens more than one million Americans yearly. But a key court ruling that classified salmonella as a naturally occurring bacteria prevents the government from taking action against companies with bad ratings.
Bell & Evans did not respond to numerous calls, texts and emails seeking comment.
The company’s most recent public statement, posted on its website June 1, did not mention the latest death of a Bell & Evans employee — Agapito Martinez, who the local coroner said died from COVID-19 at age 70 days earlier. Instead, the statement said there had been no new coronavirus cases for several weeks.
It’s unclear how many Bell & Evans workers have fallen ill, because the company and the state are keeping their tallies under wraps. Employees say Bell & Evans won’t tell them either. A new bill authored by a state lawmaker aims to make those records public.
Still, the toll can be glimpsed from an Inquirer analysis of state coronavirus cases. Although infections in Fredericksburg, where Bell & Evans is located, remain rare, nearly 40% of Lebanon County’s known cases trace back to a single zip code — 17046 — in Lebanon City. That’s where many of the company’s workers live in multi-generational households on the north side near the Benjamin Franklin Highway.
There are similar hot spots in Hazleton and Lancaster, cities with their own communities of Latino workers who toil in meatpacking plants and logistics warehouses that have continued operating during the pandemic.
The counties surrounding those cities — Lebanon, Luzerne and Lancaster — are predominantly white and led by Republican politicians who pushed to loosen coronavirus restrictions faster than Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, recommended. Meanwhile, the number of cases in Latino neighborhoods continues to climb, a sign that the people doing most of the work in the area’s most prominent businesses are also suffering the most from the pandemic.
“We came to America looking for a better future," said Amilcar Arroyo, editor and publisher of El Mensajero, a monthly newspaper based in Hazleton. "But every future has a sacrifice.”
Bell & Evans believes it has responded well to the coronavirus and documented the steps it took to address the threat in a series of memos posted on its website.
The company wrote in a May 6 memo that it has “followed, exceeded and adapted” to all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reducing the spread of the virus.
“Bell & Evans has seen positive cases at its facilities," the memo states. "In every occurrence, Bell & Evans notified team members who worked in close proximity to the infected person.”
At the same time, a memo posted on March 23 shows that in the pandemic’s earliest days, the company was doing little more to protect workers than restricting visitors to its plants and stepping up cleaning.
State Health Secretary Rachel Levine declined to say why Pennsylvania won’t release the names of food processors with outbreaks or the number of sickened workers at each plant. The state has already published similar information on nursing homes.
Levine’s agency would say only that 2,913 workers from 239 plants in Pennsylvania had tested positive as of last week. A CDC report released last month found that Pennsylvania had more confirmed cases of COVID-19 among meat production workers than any other state.
State officials said all plants have received guidance on mitigating the spread of the virus, and gained access to priority testing and protective medical equipment for workers. Still, state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding acknowledged there were gaps in meat processors’ response to the pandemic.
Dozens of plants just reported their first cases in May, state data show, suggesting that the virus is still spreading across an industry whose workers are particularly vulnerable to infection. Redding said that 18 companies with outbreaks are receiving intensive help from the state and have made critical improvements.
“Those things they did ideally would have been done weeks earlier,” said Redding, who wouldn’t name the companies. Disclosure would violate “the trust that’s been developed” between the companies and the state since the pandemic began. Instead, he asked members of the public to have faith that things are now under control.
Melissa Perry, an environmental and occupational health expert at George Washington University who studies the meat-processing industry, disagrees with Redding. She said residents of cities like Lebanon, Hazleton and Lancaster deserve to know about any coronavirus data the state collects.
“It really is in the best interest of the entire community, the company itself, the workers and the residents in the community to be fully informed as to what’s going on,” Perry said.
Cesar Liriano moved to Lebanon from the Dominican Republic more than a decade ago while searching for his American dream – a safe place to raise his family. He said the city’s quiet streets reminded him of parts of the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo.
Census data from 1980 show that Lebanon used to be an almost all-white city whose economy revolved around a nuts-and-bolts factory that stretched for 18 city blocks. Today, Lebanon is majority-minority and its economy depends on meat processors like Bell & Evans.
To address a lack of information about the coronavirus in the city’s Latino neighborhoods, Liriano has been working with fellow organizer Guadalupe Barba of community group Juntos de Lebanon to distribute free washable masks and fliers in Spanish that explain COVID-19 and how to stay safe.
He first learned that a Bell & Evans worker from Lebanon had tested positive for the coronavirus in late March. Then several friends and relatives who work for the company got ill. An older worker who hoists heavy bags of chicken parts contracted the virus soon after.
That man’s job is one of the most physically demanding in the plant, and one that made him especially vulnerable to infection.
Before he got sick, the worker would be face to face with the next person on the production line every time he lifted a bag and handed it off. He’s expected to move 120 bags an hour. Two every minute. No masks. At least, not back then.
“I work eight hours a day throwing bags to the women,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared he would be fired. He took time off but has returned. “It’s heavy work, but we’re doing it.”
One issue he’s observed since he recovered is the company’s reluctance to pay all workers with symptoms of the virus to stay home and avoid spreading it. The company only pays workers who stay home if they test positive. Pennsylvania recommends a more generous policy — paying all employees who fear they are sick and wish to quarantine, regardless of their test status. Fear of testing negative and missing a paycheck leads people who feel ill to avoid testing, the worker said.
Had he not already contracted the virus and recovered, the older worker said, he likely would have resigned by now, especially given his age.
“Scared? Yes, I was scared because it’s an illness anyone can die from,” he said.
A younger Bell & Evans worker who lives in Lebanon said he and several others begged the company to close for two weeks so that all workers could be tested at once, but he said the company refused. Doing so would have disrupted the plant’s output.
“Production always comes out — with or without employees, it needs to come out,” the younger worker said.
Health Secretary Levine’s order lays out a rigorous cleaning procedure that’s required each time a life-sustaining business discovers a positive case. Companies must close off and ventilate any area that person visited before disinfecting the work space. But few poultry plants have done this because it would require shutting down their facilities.
Workers believe mass testing is needed because they say the company routinely asked sick employees’ asymptomatic spouses to continue reporting for work, a violation of CDC guidelines on when to quarantine.
Bell & Evans also pressured sick workers to return before they had fully recovered, the younger worker said.
Sick workers were told to get tested at Bell & Evans’ onsite wellness clinic, which accepts the health insurance the company provides. But 10 days or so after a worker tested positive, the clinic would start calling.
“‘Do you have fever? Headache? How is your breathing?’” clinic staff would ask.
Once employees reported that their symptoms had subsided, they were expected to return to work immediately, whether or not they might still be contagious.
“Of course the employees were surprised that [the company] hadn’t taken the measures necessary to protect us,” the younger worker said.
State Sen. Dave Arnold, a Republican who represents Lebanon County and advocated that it reopen ahead of Wolf’s schedule, said he didn’t know that Bell & Evans employees had reported feeling pressure to work while sick. He called the allegations “very troubling.”
“We consider these to be essential positions, and we need to find a way to make sure that every single person in those essential workplaces is taken care of and is able to be kept free from COVID,” Arnold said.
The coronavirus struck Bell & Evans during a time of rapid expansion.
Over the last five years, the company added a second plant, a 160,000-square-foot processing facility; and announced plans to add a third. It also opened an organic, state-of-the-art chicken hatchery. And as the virus tore through its workforce, Bell & Evans helped secure public funding to build an affordable housing complex for workers near its campus.
It was during this time that former employee Doris Guzman injured her shoulder on the job and said she was forced to work through crippling pain, according to a discrimination lawsuit the 58-year-old brought against the company six months ago in federal court. She had worked in the Fredericksburg plant for nearly 20 years when she got hurt.
Guzman’s complaint alleges that in 2018, as she thrust a chicken along a conveyor belt, she heard her shoulder crack. Instead of receiving medical attention, Guzman said, she was told to stay on the production line, where she was expected to de-bone one small chicken every five seconds.
“Defendants responded by telling plaintiff ‘you are not really in pain’ and began yelling at her to get back to work,” the complaint says.
Bell & Evans attorneys who responded to the lawsuit in early April agree that Guzman suffered a shoulder injury at work. The attorneys said Guzman’s supervisor took her injury seriously and responded by suggesting she work at a slower pace.
It was only after the pain became unbearable and Guzman faced discipline for not meeting her production quota that Bell & Evans moved her to another department where she could more easily use her healthy left arm to perform the work, according to the company’s response to Guzman’s complaint.
Across Pennsylvania, Latino workers have been pummeled by the virus.
They’re exposed at work and at home, many have underlying health conditions that increase their risk, and some lack access to health care, said William Calo, a public health expert from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. These disadvantages help explain why Latinos account for 11% of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus deaths, but only 8% of the state’s population, CDC data show.
“Our Hispanic workforce is now low-wage and high-risk essential employees,” Calo said. “It is no surprise that it is happening at chicken factories because many Hispanic employees work in proximity to other workers.”
Lebanon is not the only small Pennsylvania city with a large Latino population and a troubling concentration of positive cases. As of Wednesday, two zip codes in Lancaster, 17603 and 17602, account for nearly 70% of the county’s cases, state data show. And in Luzerne County, 38% of the infections trace back to two working-class zip codes in Hazleton, 18201 and 18202.
“The industrial setting is where the disease emanated from,” said State Rep. Tarah Toohil, a Republican from Luzerne County.
She believes the disease spread quickly inside those workplaces because companies were slow to enforce social distancing, offer face masks, or provide hand sanitizer, even after the state labeled them essential enterprises.
Like the Lebanon area with its chicken-processing plants and large Dollar General warehouse, Hazleton has an Amazon warehouse, a Cargill meat-packing plant, and a Mission Foods tortilla factory.
Frustrated by the dearth of information on conditions inside these facilities, Toohil in early May introduced legislation known as the COVID-19 Industrial Business Data Reporting Act. It would require businesses with buildings of 50,000 square feet or larger to report to the Pennsylvania Department of Health the number of workers who test positive, and detail how many recover and how many die.
The legislation would also require the state to make the data public for as long as there is an official coronavirus emergency. The bill has drawn sponsors from both political parties, but lawmakers haven’t taken any action on it. A first vote in the health committee has not even been scheduled.
Perry, the environmental and occupational health expert, said federal rules require employers to protect their workers from blood-borne pathogens, such as hepatitis B, but no rules exist to protect them from airborne diseases like the coronavirus.
“We do not have the airborne pathogen standard,” said Perry, adding that any move to adopt such a standard halted with the election of President Donald Trump. "After 2016, a lot of that work just stopped.”
“If we had that standard in place right now, every employer would be obligated” to keep their employees safe from the virus, she added.
As more Pennsylvania businesses reopen and residents emerge from their homes, concerns are mounting about the peril Latino workers face on the job.
Democratic Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz voted against reopening the county without permission from the state because she fears the virus is primed to roar back. The state resisted moving Lebanon County into the “yellow” phase of reopening because of its relatively high case count and its small number of ICU beds.
Knowing that poultry-processing workers are still at risk raises Litz’s concern.
“I have this fear that there will be a resurgence, and then we will have to go back to red and stay there longer,” Litz said. “Sometimes patience is the most important thing.”