Life and Death in the Poultry Capital of the World
GAINESVILLE, GA.—On Saturday afternoon, more than 100 mourners gathered on a grass field across the street from the Foundation Food Group’s poultry plant to honor six workers killed in a chemical leak two days earlier. Local pastors took turns at the microphone in both English and Spanish. One likened the crowd’s pain to that of God losing his son: “Who more than God knows what it means to lose someone who is precious to you? So, bring him these pains in your heart.”
Coworkers, neighbors, and family members of the dead stood in front of six floral wreaths, which had white ribbons with golden lettering that spelled out EMPLEADOS PLANTA, or “plant worker.” A few people fell to their knees and sobbed; some hugged and comforted one another; and others quietly held flowers and lit candles, as a man stood on the bed of a pickup truck and read the names of the dead.
Nearby, the poultry plant’s perimeter was ringed with caution tape. Piles of white work smocks still sat on a picnic table, as if disposal had been abandoned halfway through.
The workers—Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45; Corey Alan Murphy, 35; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41; Victor Vellez, 38; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28—were killed when a liquid nitrogen refrigerant line ruptured on January 28 at about 10 AM, according to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
Plant employees made frantic calls to 911. One caller told the operator, “I’ve got a person who could potentially be frozen from liquid nitrogen, we run nitrogen freezers here,” outside the plant sirens can be heard blaring, while another caller says, “I’ve got two people not breathing, I’ve got one barely breathing,” according to a local news station.
A poultry worker, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, told me that the freezer had been having problems earlier in the day. She said she noticed at about 8:30 AM that the chickens were coming down the assembly line thawed, and she informed Vera-Garcia. Sometime after 9 AM, Vera-Garcia and a maintenance worker went into the freezer to make repairs, and soon plumes of white smoke poured into the plant, engulfing everyone in a cloud.
With visibility severely reduced, the workers could hardly see into the freezer. First, they could only make out a boot. As they peered in, the worker said, someone noticed that the floor was also frozen. But they quickly realized it wasn’t just the floor. The worker said she saw her colleagues on the ground frozen white. “If we had stayed longer, we would have all fallen dead.” Asked if when the plant opens, she would return to work, she said, “I don’t know. It would be an awful experience. I don’t want to remember.”
The plant has five production lines staffed by about a total of 130 people. The accident occurred on production line four, where workers season, cook, and spray the chicken with liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze the product, said Katherine Lemos, chair and CEO of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, at a nearby press conference an hour before Saturday’s vigil. She said five people died on the scene and one later at the hospital. About a dozen more workers were taken to the hospital with injuries. She described the chemical leak as an “inadvertent release” of liquid nitrogen that “rapidly converted to a gas,” which is “heavier than air and forces oxygen out of the room.”
Lemos explained that the disaster could have been even worse: “A maintenance manager described personally closing the isolation valves of the tanks in the parking lot subsequent to the event, shutting off the supply to the building, which limited the potential damage or consequence.”
The chicken industry dominates the economy of Gainesville, earning it the nickname “the poultry capital of the world.” Nearly everyone I spoke with had a connection to the job. Now workers, families, and local supporters are demanding answers to what really happened. They want justice for the dead—and to make sure such a disaster never happens again.
More than 30 local activists and lawyers have formed a coalition headed by Georgia Familias Unidas, a mutual aid network that sprang into action in July 2020 to provide immigrant poultry-plant workers with personal protective equipment, Covid-19 test kits, and money for utilities, rent, and medical bills.
Maria del Rosario Palacios, the founder of Georgia Familias Unidas, said that these efforts “took a different turn when my mother became very sick with Covid” on the same day a worker died from the virus. “I realized there and then that the poultry plants were not holding themselves accountable to protecting workers, and so we jumped into action,” Palacioa told me.
Like many in Gainesville, Palacios was a poultry worker herself, employed for four years at Smithfield in the quality assurance department and at a separate local plant. These experiences make her a credible messenger, because, as she put it, she’s lived these struggles “en carne propia,” or in her flesh.
The Foundation Food Group told The New York Times in a statement that the company was not aware of any Covid-19 deaths of workers in its facilities. But across the country, about 45,000 Covid-19 cases have been traced back to meat and poultry processing plants, including 482 outbreaks in 38 states, and 240 reported worker deaths in 27 states, according to the Midwest Center for Reporting.
After the deaths at the plant, community members launched GoFundMe accounts to cover funeral costs and other expenses for each victim and their survivors. One that Palacios’s coalition created has so far raised nearly $30,000. But Palacios told me that the GoFundMes were no substitute for federal and state support, especially considering the poverty in her community. “We need Covid-19 relief,” she said.
The coalition says that workers are afraid to come forward to request medical treatment or report labor violations for fear they may be deported or lose their jobs. Gainesville is the county seat of Hall County, where Donald Trump recently won 70 percent of vote. The county participates in the 287(g) program that deputizes local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws under the supervision of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. This means that the county can put someone in deportation proceedings for infractions as minor as driving without a license or having a broken taillight.
In the short time since the tragedy, reports of abuse, negligence, and labor violations have emerged on Facebook and Signal chat threads. In response, on February 1, the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance, one of the coalition members, held a press conference and published a letter to state and federal officials as well as to the Foundation Food Group’s legal counsel.
“We are heartbroken and deeply concerned as the aftermath of the fatal liquid nitrogen leak unfolds,” reads the letter cosigned by over 50 immigrant rights, civic groups, labor unions, including the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia State AFL-CIO, Poder Latinx, the Southern Law Poverty Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and made available to me in advance of its release. In the letter, which can be read in its entirety at Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s website, under the headline, “Foundation Food Workers Are Fearful of Retaliation Based on Immigration Status and their Cooperation with Federal Investigators,” the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance makes a series of demands:
- No intimidation, harassment, or retaliation against poultry workers at the plant
- The US Department of Labor, the US Department of Justice, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must conduct a full and comprehensive investigation.
- A halt to any Immigrant and Customs Enforcement activities against undocumented workers while the investigation is ongoing
“We are in an emergency situation,” said Shelly Anand, executive director with Sur Legal Collaborative, a member of the coalition that is providing legal support to poultry workers.
Anand told me that the deaths caused by the leak are only part of the story. She said she has received reports of employers coercing workers to sign documents in English by which they may be signing away their rights to informers’ privilege or joint representation and agreeing that the plant’s lawyers will provide legal representation or council. The workers, she said, “are very intimidated by the employer, so we are in a very difficult situation.”
The Foundation Food Group did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
On social media, Michelle Sanchez, the Latinx director at the Democratic Party of Georgia, posted that management at the plant knew a day before the chemical leak that there were was a problem but refused to stop production. A reporter from The Gainesville Times asked Lemos from the Chemical Safety Board for corroboration at the news conference Saturday, but she could not confirm Sanchez’s claim. “During this on-scene portion of our investigation, we will not be determining or speculating as to the probable cause,” said Lemos. “It’s our civic duty to make sure that we consider all of the potentials and not rule out others too quickly.”
A former Foundation Food Group poultry plant worker spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because of her undocumented status, and said she witnessed labor violations and regular mechanical failures, particularly on line four. In her five years at the plant, she earned between $9.25 and $10.50 an hour. But she said that even though she officially clocked in at 7:30 AM, she often started work at 6 AM, and her bosses told her not to record that hour and half on her timesheet.
She also described unsanitary conditions, lack of training, and gruesome incidents—including a coworker’s hand getting “shredded like ground beef” in a machine. Other workplace issues included broken air-conditioners and the constant breakdowns of line four resulting in white smoke filling the air. She said she reported these problems to her supervisor Vera-Garcia who in turn told management. She explained that Vera-Garcia was under constant pressure to keep up the pace despite the mishaps. She said he even did assembly line maintenance.
She said that after the smoke incidents on line four, she began experiencing health problems. At first, she thought that they may have been due to allergies. Lacking medical insurance, she has not seen a doctor about her condition. But the more her symptoms continued, she grew concerned about her backaches, the way her throat dried up at night, and the feeling that her “nose was stuffed with chilies.”
Fed up with these working conditions and encouraged by her husband to look after her health, she quit the plant just weeks before the accident. “Today it was six. Tomorrow it will be the whole plant,” she said. “I think that as workers, we should have the best. Without our hands, companies are nothing.”
The Foundation Food Group has been investigated for labor violations in the past. The New York Times reported that the company, then under different ownership, paid a total of $140,000 in fines in 2015 and 2016, and that in 2017, at least two employees lost multiple fingers in accidents on the job.
“We’re talking about an industry that has to be shamed into allowing its workers to go to the bathroom. You think a couple of fingers are going to stop them?” said Paul Glaze, a community organizer, referring to Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations at the poultry plant. “The line speeds have to be slowed down. Workers have to have a right to use the restroom. Workers have to have mandated PPE, Covid-19 tests, and paid sick leave. They must have the right to unionize.”
Speaking about the poor treatment immigrant workers receive in poultry plants, Glaze told me that it doesn’t even “stop once you’re dead.” He explained, “To get the back of the cemetery where many workers are buried, you have to drive past a giant statue of a chicken in honor of the industry that has run this town since the Great Depression.”
Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), commends the work of Georgia Familias Unidas and said that exploitative working conditions and poor wages are baked into the business model of the poultry industry, especially the ones, like the Found Food Group plant, that are not unionized. After immigrating to United States from El Salvador in the 1990s, Merino worked in a shrimp-processing plant in Los Angeles, where she became a rank-and-file leader and went on to help organize poultry plants in North Carolina and other Southern states.
“We will continue supporting the efforts. Not only of that specific group of workers, but all Latino workers in the area in other poultry plants in order to elevate their voices about the issues affecting them. LCLAA will stay there,” she said, including a clear commitment to building a chapter in Gainesville in partnership with Georgia Familias Unidas.
Nena, a local florist, told me in Spanish, “When you come to Gainesville, you come to work at a poultry plant.” She arrived in Georgia from Mexico over 25 years ago and said she’s worked in almost every poultry plant in the state. It’s grueling, dangerous work, “and so, we tell our children, ‘You don’t want to study, off to work in a poultry plant.’’’
Nena dropped off the first floral wreath at the employee entrance to the poultry plant with the words para quienes no regresaron a casa (for those who did not return home) inscribed on a ribbon. “It’s sad. Imagine that your dad, your brother, your mom, don’t come home.”
Luis Feliz LeonLuis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar making good trouble in New York City.
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