COVID-19 has spread inside a Tyson beef processing facility in Amarillo, marking the latest apparent outbreak of the virus at a Texas meatpacking facility. Plant employees interviewed by the Observer say the company largely failed to protect them from the coronavirus and kept operating the facility despite workers’ falling ill. One plant employee has died, employees say.
No infections at the plant had been publicly reported as of Thursday afternoon. But employees interviewed for this story say the virus was present as early as late March, when Tyson posted a notice inside the facility to tell employees that at least one worker had tested positive. The company did not widely distribute respiratory masks to workers until mid-April, they say. Employee John Atwood says he tested positive for COVID-19 in late April and is in quarantine at home. His wife also works at the plant and is awaiting test results to determine if she is infected.
The Observer has changed Atwood’s name, as well as that of the other employee named in this story, after employees expressed concern that Tyson might retaliate against them for speaking to a reporter.
Atwood says his illness could have been prevented if Tyson had acted sooner to contain the virus. “They should have done something earlier and been more transparent with their employees,” he says. “They should have been closed when one person tested positive, and got everyone tested.”
A wave of coronavirus cases has rocked meatpacking plants nationally and in Texas, as thousands of employees work in close proximity to one another and had scant access to personal protective equipment (PPE) until last month. Across the nation, 5,000 meatpacking workers have been infected, and at least 20 have died. The Panhandle itself has become one of the nation’s top hot spots for the spread of COVID-19. Just north of Amarillo, in Moore County, at least 240 workers at a JBS beef slaughterhouse have tested positive for the virus. Potter County, of which Amarillo is the county seat, has recorded 1027 confirmed cases, at publication of this story, among its population of 117,000 people, one of the highest per capita infection rates in the state. The number of cases in the constellation of rural counties surrounding Potter are rising daily.
Federal and state authorities descended on the region this week in an effort to shore up testing and contain the spread of COVID-19. All of the workers at the Amarillo plant are being tested for the virus. But the Texas Department of State Health Services has refused to say whether it’s investigating an outbreak at the Tyson facility, deferring to Amarillo’s public health department. The local health department also declined to share information about infections at the plant, saying only that 41 percent of the region’s cases are tied to meatpacking operations.
At the Tyson plant, workers say the company failed for weeks to adequately protect them from COVID-19. For instance, employees were allowed to continue hanging, cutting, and packaging beef despite having temperatures of above 100.4 degrees, a potential indicator of infection, employee Lee Flynn told the Observer. He says that while Tyson has now distributed PPE to workers, the company has been lax in forcing employees to don masks. “A lot of people don’t use masks,” Flynn says. “If you show [up] to work without a mask, you can still work.”
The assertions made by Atwood and Flynn appear to align with complaints made by employees at another Tyson plant in Texas. In Shelby County, at least 56 cases of COVID-19 have been connected to the plant; employees there said Tyson failed to notify them that the virus was present at the plant in a timely manner and acted too slowly in equipping workers with PPE. Shelby County has now recorded 144 confirmed cases and is the epicenter of coronavirus cases in rural East Texas. Tyson meatpacking plants outside Texas—in Washington, Iowa, and Kansas—have also been wracked by COVID-19.
A Tyson representative has repeatedly failed to answer specific questions about the spread of COVID-19 in its Texas plants, saying only, “The health and safety of our team members is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously.” The representative said Tyson has taken several measures, including spacing shifts further apart “to reduce worker interaction” and “encourag[ing] workers to stay home when they’re sick” to prevent infection. Officials at the Amarillo plant are offering a $500 bonus and a $30 daily bonus to workers who continue to show up. An executive order issued by President Trump late last month has forced U.S. slaughterhouses to stay open despite the increasingly precarious situation workers find themselves in.
The Amarillo Tyson employees who were interviewed by the Observer say at least one of their co-workers has died from complications of the coronavirus. They say that Maung Hla Thein was taken to BSA Hospital on April 6, where he tested positive for the virus, and died on April 16.
Flynn serves as an informal spokesperson for the refugee and immigrant populations who largely constitute the plant’s 4,000-employee workforce. He says employees have expressed fears that the conditions within the plant expose them to coronavirus. Some, like Flynn, have begun taking unpaid time off to protect themselves. But it may be too late for Flynn: When reached by telephone on Tuesday, his breathing was labored. He had a hacking cough and a fever of 101.7 degrees.
Christopher Collins contributed reporting.
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