Number Of Farmer John Coronavirus Cases Continues To Grow

Farmer John slaughterhouse workers wear face masks as they leave the Vernon plant on May 21, 2020 (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

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Along with nursing homes, meatpacking plants across the U.S. have become hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19. Reports that highlight the plight of workers and the impact on the nation's meat supply have focused on large facilities located in the middle of the country.

But since more than a hundred cases at Farmer John in Vernon have come to light, it's clear that the outbreak at meatpacking plants is not limited by geography.

153 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Smithfield Foods-owned meatpacking plant, according to L.A. County Department of Public Health. That's 13 more cases than were first reported by LAist just five days ago.

The company provided this statement to LAist: "Our Smithfield Family members are crucial to our nation's response to COVID-19. We thank them for keeping food on America's tables, and have implemented aggressive measures to protect their health and safety during this pandemic."

Still, the number of cases at Farmer John continues to grow.

Over the past few weeks, LAist has been working to confirm the developing story, reaching out to workers at the plant, Smithfield, and multiple health departments. Here's what we've learned.


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FEAR, SICKNESS, AND FRUSTRATION

Pedro Albarrán works in the cut department at Farmer John, breaking down hog shoulders. He said he and his colleagues began worrying about getting infected, like much of the U.S., in the early days of March, when reports about the volatility of the virus became widely known.

Albarrán and others stood shoulder-to-shoulder, clad in rubber boots and long coats, processing thousands of pigs per shift, as they normally did. But without any sort of additional distancing or protections, they feared it was only a matter of time until people started getting sick.

"We know that [the virus was] coming," said Albarrán, who spoke to LAist over the phone along with a representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents workers at the plant.

Sure enough, it did. Albarrán said that by the latter half of the month, people began complaining about symptoms consistent with infection — a claim supported by John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770.

"Some people were having a sore throat or runny nose,"Albarrán said. "So we been telling them, 'Hey, go see your doctors, make sure you're fine.' Some others call me [on] the phone, 'Hey Pedro, I went to the clinic and I test positive for the virus.'"

DEMANDS FOR PROTECTION

"When people started getting sick, is when we started demanding measures ... to protect ourselves,"Albarrán said. "[Farmer John said] they were going to do something, but they didn't really pay attention to our demands. Because they probably don't think it was going to hit the company that hard."

Albarrán said the company provided hand sanitizer, but balked at the workers' request for distancing.

"They say, 'Oh, that's pretty hard,'" he said. "We understand that's pretty hard, but we don't want to be at risk of getting sick."

Smithfield Foods didn't address these specific allegations, the timeline of the outbreak, or their initial response, following LAist queries.

However, the company did say: "Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines."

By early April, stories about widespread outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the U.S. began to pop up. Smithfield announced the closure of one of its South Dakota plants on April 12, after 230 workers were infected with the virus.

In L.A, it wasn't until mid-April — roughly a month after Albarrán and the UFCW Local 770 said some workers got sick — that any public health agency found out about cases at Farmer John.

The mural on the wall of the Farmer John meatpacking facility in Vernon. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

VERNON'S HEALTH DEPARTMENT GETS A COMPLAINT

"The first thing we heard ... was a complaint from some workers that said, 'Hey there's a positive case,'" said Freddie Agyin, director of Vernon's Health and Environmental Control Department

Agyin said he received the complaint on April 16 and reached out to Farmer John the same day, asking for details regarding infections inside the plant. On April 17, he said the company told him about a cluster of six people who had gotten sick in the ham deboning department.

Farmer John told Agyin that the company had already shut down the department and sent home those who may have been exposed to infection, for two weeks.

It's unclear how many people were sent home or who may have been included in that group, as Smithfield did not provide those details.

About two weeks later, on April 28, Agyin said he inspected the plant, expecting to see little in the way of protection.

But by then, stories about COVID-19's brutal spread through meatpacking facilities were capturing national attention and Smithfield had begun to institute widespread changes.

"I was going in thinking that we were going to have to give them all of these recommendations and things they need to do," Agyin said. "I was surprised by what they already put together."

FARMER JOHN MOVES TO PROTECT ITS WORKERS

In its statement to LAist, the company detailed the protections put into place for workers, which can also be seen in a video.

Starting in front of the facility, temperature checks are done on employees entering the plant.

"It's almost like going through a checkpoint at the airport," Agyin said.

Inside the facility, face shields and masks are handed out. There are partitions in break rooms and in some parts of the facility, separating workers who operate close to one another. Shifts are staggered.

Both Agyin and Albarrán confirmed these details.

A Smithfield video shows personal protection equipment (PPE) that's given to workers (Screenshot from Smithfield Foods corporate video)

Agyin said that after his inspection, he recommended the company offer free testing for employees, which it had not been doing.

Smithfield now does, and has said it will continue to do so for an indefinite period of time.

The company is also covering health insurance co-pays related to the virus. And if an employee is confirmed sick, they are told to quarantine for 14 days and will be paid in full. If they're sick for a longer period, Albarrán said they've been encouraged to pursue worker's compensation.

The whole situation is a huge adjustment, putting them at risk in other ways, said Albarrán, pointing out that the additional PPE can make it tough to see when processing meat at a high rate.

And he's worried that when workers pick up their tools in the morning, large groups of them tend to congregate. Throughout the day, he also regularly sees other employees without any barrier or substantial distance between them.

"People are still getting infected," Albarrán said. "They're doing a lot, but it's not enough. They need to make sure everybody is protected right."

WORKERS ARE STILL GETTING SICK

In the week between LAist's first conversations with Agyin and the publication of our story on May 21, the number of confirmed infections at the plant climbed from 116 to 140. Less than a week later, it's at 153.

It's not completely clear whether that increase is a result of new clusters of infections at the plant and/or a result of increased testing and reporting.

In a statement to LAist, Smithfield emphasized that it is following guidance from the CDC and OSHA: "We are doing everything we can, as fast as we can. There are, however, inescapable realities about our industry."

"Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms. These areas pose additional challenges. Consequently, mitigating risk of COVID-19 transmission depends on implementing other aggressive actions, which have already been adopted companywide."

Union leader John Grant doesn't think the company is doing enough.

He said that they're asking Smithfield to do regular walkthroughs with union representatives and OSHA to ensure regulations are being followed; asking for reports on who got infected and when; and requesting mandatory testing.

"It's like a pandemic roulette wheel in there," Grant said. "Unless the company figures out when and where these infections are taking place, they're jeopardizing the health and lives of [the] workers. We don't want leave for people who are sick. We want people not to get sick."

Even though the number of people who've tested positive at the plant has grown over the past two months, it wasn't until after the publication of our initial article that the L.A. County Department of Public Health confirmed them.

It has announced an investigation into the growing number of cases in Vernon, as a number of other facilities there have seen outbreaks as well.