COVID-19 in Gainseville, Georgia – the “Poultry Capital of the World”
CYNTHIA AHMED (Harvard University)
MICHAEL BASS, ALEXANDRA LANCEY, and MILEIKA LOVICK (Northeastern University)
JOHN FOSSUM (University of Texas at Austin)
Across the United States, the COVID-19 outbreak highlighted the significant inequalities already embedded in the fabric of work and labor in America. In the meat and poultry processing industry in particular, more than 16,000 workers were infected with COVID-19 in April and May alone. Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 87 percent of those cases were among racial or ethnic minorities. Since May, these cases have certainly increased, with some reports from organizations tracking confirmed cases in meat and poultry processing plants putting the total as of July 17 at around 40,000 workers nationwide.
In order to better understand the landscape of the COVID-19 crisis in the meat and poultry processing industry, we focused on Gainesville, GA, a city recognized as the “Poultry Capital of the World.” Gainesville produces 31 million pounds of chicken and 7 million eggs daily. Gainesville’s poultry plants have also seen some of the highest prevalence of COVID-19 in the state, with workers working and living in close quarters, often without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Census records report that 40 percent of Gainesville’s residents are Hispanic, and 25 percent of the population is foreign born. Recent Pew data suggests that 12 percent of Gainesville’s total population is made up of undocumented immigrants, the highest in the nation. As of May, 56 percent of total COVID-19 cases in Gainesville were among the Latinx population. Hall County, in which Gainesville is located, has twice the infection rate of neighboring Gwinnet County.
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Challenges and Directions for Further Research
We faced several research challenges while carrying out this project over the summer. In addition, our work uncovered a number of distinct areas that we think should be considered in future projects. We have listed relevant theoretical frameworks and potential research questions that we think are most promising below:
We experienced several limitations related to data collection and availability.
- Access to workers, given that many of them are undocumented and in fear of retaliation by their employers, is limited.
- The federal government has taken significant steps to curb reporting related to COVID-19 cases. Plants themselves, as well as states, have unclear (at best) reporting structures and even the CDC reports specific to meat and poultry processing plants have only garnered data from less than half of states.
- For example, the Food and Environment Research Network tracks reported cases in food processing, meatpacking, and farming areas across the country, relying on CDC data, state reported data, and local news media coverage. Those numbers are often inconsistent with any numbers reported directly by the CDC or states themselves, and it is often unclear how they are able to track cases to specific plants.
- Getting in touch with the team reporting on this data would incredibly useful to better understand their methodology and the resources they are accessing.
“Distancing” refers to the increased gulf in space and information between producers and consumers (e.g. chicken farmers and supermarket shoppers) and we found this to be a significant factor in shaping how COVID-19 affected workers.
- How is the global reach of supply chains impacting corporate decisions?
- Physical distance: Increased distance covered by supply chains has direct effects (e.g. transportation and refrigeration), legal implications (multiple legal environments) and social-psychological implications (othering of harms).
- Information distance: the linkages between consumption, processing, and production decisions are increasingly difficult to follow – ie. where did the chicken come from? What are the conditions of production, processing, and transport?
- Are corporations more likely to keep sites open if the decision to open is made far away, either physically/geographically or high up in a corporate conglomerate hierarchy?
- What is the effect of high demand for international/distant buyers on the decision to open?
- Are processing facilities in highly dispersed supply chains providing more or less protection for workers?
- How is the global reach of supply chains impacting corporate decisions?
It is important to bring attention to the economic systems (manifested through poultry processing corporations) that exploit workers along racial lines, either explicitly or implicitly through systemic injustices.
- How do we characterize the intersections between race and the systems that create:
- Local socioeconomic inequality?
- Underfunded public health and safety net resources?
- What role does the recruitment of immigrants play in perpetuating racialized labor systems?
- Is there a racialized dimension to policies that prevent labor organizing?
- What are the intermediate effects of selective immigration enforcement and corporate liability protections?
- How do we characterize the intersections between race and the systems that create:
Exploitation through Market Power
The extent to which workers, local governments, or both, are dependent on these industrial worksites for revenue and jobs plays a large role.
- Do larger facilities provide less protection for workers?
- What are the effects of consolidation on the decision to stay open?
- How do conditions vary with the extent to which workers are dependent on these jobs?
Corporate Structural Power
We found that it is vital to identify where corporate power in the poultry processing industry truly lies.
- Does being designated as “essential” give employees more or less power?
- What actual power do “middle managers” have and do they use this power to do what is best for themselves, for corporate executives, or for lower level employees?
- What power and influence do stockholders and investors, both domestic and international, have on corporate decisions at poultry processing sites? What is the influence of corporate structural power on local self-determination across states?
- What is the relationship between preemption, corporate consolidation, and vertical integration, and how does this trilateral relationship influence worker precarity, rather than merely as it relates to revenue and market production?
Legislative Materials & Policy Documents
The White House. “Executive Order on Delegating Authority Under the DPA with Respect to Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19.” Executive Orders. 28 April 2020.
- This is the Executive Order issued by President Trump in April regarding the application of the Defense Production Act to various food processing industries, including meat and poultry processing.
Gainesville City Council. “Special Called Meeting – COVID-19 Update.” Meeting Recordings. March 2020-May 2020.
- These meetings are recorded and detail the Gainesville City Council’s emergency measures, debates, and decision-making process regarding the spread of COVID-19 throughout the region.
Gainesville City Council. “Resolution BR-2020-17, Resscinding Resolutions BR-2020-13, BR-2020-14, BR-2020-15 AND BR-2020015 Related to COVID-19 and for Provisions related to same.” April 3, 2020.
- This resolution, issued by City Council in early April, establishes key protocols and requirements for the city of Gainesville in light of the COVID-19 pandemic further reiterating the state of emergency in the city.
COVID-19 Administrative Guidance
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Meat and Poultry Processors: Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Coronavirus Disease: Community, Work & School. July 9, 2020.
- The CDC and OSHA jointly released guidance specific to meat and poultry workers, recognizing that they were a component of critical infrastructure and providing workers with recommendations and guidelines for safety.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “USDA To Implement President Trump’s Executive Order on Meat and Poultry Processors.” Press Releases, April 28, 2020.
- This press release describes how the USDA sees its role in implementing President Trump’s executive order and the limited role it believes it has in the use of the DPA in meatpacking and food processing plants.
Waltenburg, Michelle A., et al. “Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities – United States, April-May 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 69, no. 27. July 10, 2020.
- This report details the inequities and challenges inherent in the meat and poultry processing industry, specific to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legal Proceedings and Case Documents
Food Chain Workers Alliance. “FCWA joins civil rights complaint challenging meat processing corporation.” July 14, 2020.
- Included in the press release are links to the complaint Food Chain Workers Alliance v. Tyson Foods. The complaint to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in accusing Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride of racial discrimination based on the disparate impacts of poultry processing protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaint notes that the corporations did not follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, line speeds, and PPE, resulting in greater danger for line workers who are predominantly BIPOC and immigrants.
US Department of Justice. “Justice Department Settles Immigration-Related Discrimination Claim Against Georgia Poultry Processing Company.” Office of Public Affairs. October 9, 2018.
- Press release outlining the settlement in a discrimination lawsuit where Mar-Jac poultry was requiring work-authorized non-citizens to produce additional DHS verification. The company was ordered to pay $190,000 in civil penalty, $1020 to a refugee complainant fired for not having DHS paperwork, and $23,980 in back-pay and compensation to other employees and applicants.
News and Media Articles
Bagenstose, Kyle and Chadde, Sky. “USDA let poultry plants put workers close together even as they got sick from coronavirus.” Gainesville.com, April 24, 2020.
- This article discusses the waivers given to poultry processors and the overall impact this had on poultry workers.
Bishop Jr., Hon. Sanford D. US Congressman from Georgia. “Georgia’s Poultry Industry and Its Impact on the Local Economy and Global Trade.” Op-ed, US House of Representatives. accessed October 5, 2020.
- This paper discusses the connection between the poultry industry and the global market, and illustrates how other sectors of the agricultural industry and non-agricultural professions are dependent on the revenue derived from poultry production.
Burke, Tom. “Georgia politicians, activists demand action for poultry workers.” Fight Back! News, May 13, 2020.
- This article discusses a press conference in front of Gainesville’s Fieldale Farms poultry processing worksite, in which several local politicians, candidates, and community organizers demanded that the Georgia House of Representatives pass the “Essential Workforce Protection Act.” The community organizer at the event, Arturo Adame, was arrested in June for terroristic threats during the BLM uprising (see Hansen).
Carlisle, Madeleine. “Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp Sued to Block Atlanta’s Face Mask Ordinance. Here’s What to Know.” Time, July 18, 2020.
- This article outlines the ongoing lawsuit between Governor Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Lance Bottoms and the extent of Kemp’s authority to overrule local leadership.
Edwards, Johnny. “Georgia companies accused of federal violations got COVID relief loans.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 8, 2020.
- This article points to Mar-Jac in Gainesville as an employer with multiple OSHA violations that received $5-10 Million in Paycheck Protection Program funding under the COVID small business stimulus.
Erwin, Nicole. “Too Fast For Safety? Poultry Industry Wants To Speed Up The Slaughter Line.” NPR, October 23, 2017.
- This article connects the USDA line speed waiver program to worker safety and histories of poultry plant safety violations. Harrowing accounts from line workers are included. Also included is the National Chicken Council’s petition to remove line speed limits.
Fowler, Hayley. “Workers flee Georgia poultry plant amid false rumors of ICE roundups, officials say.” The Telegraph, August 16, 2019.
- This article documents an event from the 2019 ICE raids in which over 200 Gainesville poultry workers walked out of facilities due to rumors of an impending ICE raid.
Funk, Josh. “Stopping virus a huge challenge at crowded US meat plants.” Lincoln Journal Star, April 23, 2020.
- This piece includes worker stories about having to choose between going into work and getting sick or staying home to protect themselves and potentially being fired.
“Gainesville women organizes fundraiser for poultry plant workers affected by COVID-19.” FOX 5 Atlanta, last modified June 12, 2020.
- This piece illustrates organization at the individual and community level to collect and distribute PPE for poultry workers.
Green, Emily. “Coronavirus Takes Toll on Poultry Workers In North Georgia. Threatens Industry’s Well-Being. WABE, May 19, 2020.
- This piece shows the heavy reliance on victim blaming by owners to further avoid liability. The employers are trying to show that workers are contracting the virus at home because they live in crowded houses rather than because they have to receive PPE from third parties and continue working in cramped workspaces.
Hansen, Zachary. “Georgia activist charged with terroristic threats against cops over social media posts.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2020.
- This article discusses the arrest of Arturo Adame for making terroristic threats against the police during the Summer 2020 BLM uprising. Adame is a community organizer who called for more protection for poultry workers only a month before. The arrest is highly unusual and given the circumstances noteworthy for this research.
Hemel, Daniel. “OPINION EXCHANGE: No, Trump Didn’t Order Meat-Processing Plants to Reopen.” Star Tribune, May 4, 2020.
- This article explains one perspective on the extent of the use of the Defense Production Act, arguing that President Trump does not have the ability to use the DPA to force meat processing plants open, but rather that it gave him a justification for doing so without actual legal necessity.
Kempner, Matt. “OSHA court case shows limits on safety inspections.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 23, 2018.
- This article covers the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals case that Mar-Jac Poultry won, in which the Gainesville facility refused to allow an OSHA inspector to walk through the facility to investigate a burn victim’s workstation unless she wore a box on her head. The article is framed to discuss whether OSHA oversteps by expanding investigations.
Lee, Maggie. “Gainesville’s ‘Poultry Capital of the World’ braces for COVID-19 spread.” Georgia Recorder, April 24, 2020.
- This article sets the tone at the poultry farms prior to any major outbreaks being reported. The Gainesville hospital reports that it treated 73 patients who tested positive. This piece also includes that Latinx people make up about 29% of the population but account for roughly 53% of COVID cases.
Mayer, Jane. “How Trump is helping tycoons exploit the pandemic.” New Yorker. July 13, 2020.
- Critical article for connecting poultry monopolies, lobbying, lack of union representation, line speeds, and dangerous worker conditions including OSHA violations.
McCaffrey, Shannon. “Emory team brings COVID-19 testing, education to poultry workers in rural Ga.” Woodruff Health Sciences Center, July 1, 2020.
- This article discusses a range of issues related to the outbreak in rural Georgia, including a team from Emory that went to the area and tested workers and other residents. The article not only addresses what the testing day entailed, but what experts suggest could provide relief and actual protection for Latino residents.
National Employment Law Project, National Immigration Law Center, and OSH Law Project. “FAQ: Immigrant Workers’ Rights and COVID-19.” National Employment Law Project, April 10, 2020.
- This resource guide discusses the protections available to all workers under OSHA related to safe and healthy workplaces.
Redmon, Jeremy. “In ‘Poultry Capital,’ stakes are high amid Trump immigration crackdown.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 19, 2019.
- This article documents ICE crackdowns in Gainesville. It includes statistics on immigrant and undocumented residents of the town. It also includes recent annual statistics for deportations originating from the Hall County Jail.
Redmon, Jeremy. “Hundreds of Georgia’s poultry workers have tested positive for COVID-19.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 30, 2020.
- This article highlights the level of production at poultry factories at the beginning of the pandemic, and the precautions “adopted” at various processing plants.
Scheurich, Roy E. and Joseph M. Jacobs. “A Shocking Instance of Brutal Employer Aggression: Antiunion Violence in a ‘Union-Free’ Town.” History Matters, accessed October 5, 2020.
- This article discusses the history of a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Jewell Inc., that organized a mob to terrorize and assault union supporters in 1951.
Suggs, Ernie. “Spread of coronavirus has Georgia’s booming poultry industry on edge.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 17, 2020.
- This article addresses community organizations such as Hispanic Alliance Georgia that try to track the number of cases and deaths in the Latino community and explains challenges associated with this work. There is also mention of the delayed response on behalf of employers to provide adequate protection for workers.
Thompson, Shayla and Deborah Berkowitz. “USDA Allows Poultry Plants to Raise Line Speeds, Exacerbating Risk of COVID-19 Outbreaks and Injury.” National Employment Law Project. June 17, 2020.
- This article covers new line speed waivers issued by the USDA FSIS to poultry processing facilities. It visualizes OSHA violations for the 15 new facilities and makes the connection between line speeds, OSHA violations, and worker safety under COVID.
Watt AgNet. Top Companies: Top US chicken producers grow production, plan expansion. Watt Poultry USA Magazine. March 2020.
- This is a poultry industry magazine, March 2020 edition, that covers the top US poultry producers. Pilgrim’s Pride and Mar-Jac both have short profiles with important company information on size, production, and location.
Alkon, Alison H., Sarah Bowen, Yuki Kato, and Kara Young. “Unequally vulnerable: a food justice approach to racial disparities in COVID-19 cases.” Agriculture and Human Values 37 (2020): 535-536.
- This is a short piece outlining the argument that food justice includes acknowledgement that racial disparities in food industry labor leads to disproportionately negative outcomes for those groups.
Apostolidis, Paul. “Meatpackers are deeply vulnerable to COVID-19. Expect a reckoning for US workers.” LSE COVID-19 Blog, May 5, 2020.
- This article by a London School of Economics professor argues that the lack of worker protections in meat processing is not new, but that the COVID-19 pandemic may trigger a worker uprising or greater awareness of the issue.
Hendrickson, Mary K. “Covid lays bare the brittleness of a concentrated and consolidated food system.” Agriculture and Human Values 12 (May 2020): 1-2.
- This article argues that the difficulties in the food industry right now, such as workers dying from COVID-19 exposure, farmers euthanizing their livestock, and migrant laborers unable to cross borders, is directly caused by the increasingly consolidated food supply chain and “just in time” food supply dependence. The author calls for a “decentralized, diverse, and interconnected food system” using players like Tyson and JBS as the foil.
Pirtle, Whitney N. “Racial capitalism: A fundamental cause of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic inequities in the United States.” Health Education and Behavior 47, no. 4 (August 2020): 504-508.
- This piece looks at racial capitalism and COVID-19 through health disparities, social inequities, and differences in freedom, using Detroit, Michigan, as a case study.
National Governors Association. “Governors’ Power and Authority.” Accessed October 5, 2020.
- This helpful document outlines the extent of Governors’ authority, avenues for exercising that authority, and limits on their power.
Douglas, Leah. “Mapping COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Food System.” Food & Environment Reporting Network, accessed October 5, 2020.
- FERN keeps a daily update of reported COVID-19 cases using a variety of tracking methods in food processing, meatpacking, and farming across the country.
US Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Establishment Search, accessed October 5, 2020.
- This OSHA database is a key resource for finding OSHA, EPA, and Wage & Hour violations, by corporation and establishment.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory.” Accessed October 5, 2020.
- This USDA directory shows all meat processing facilities, providing unique facility codes that can be matched to other databases such as the line speed waivers directory.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP) Participants Table.” Last updated June 2020.
- This directory lists meat processing facilities that were granted line speed waivers under the Salmonella Initiative Program. The list is updated for the facilities receiving new waivers in April 2020. Company names are listed for each facility along with a facility code that can be linked to a specific address using the FSIS Meat, Poultry, and Egg Product Inspection Directory. Mar-Jac and Pilgrim’s Pride facilities in Gainesville are listed.