Meatpacking workers in Texas Panhandle have little power to avoid the coronavirus
A workforce of immigrants has long powered the massive JBS meatpacking plant in Cactus, where a cluster of coronavirus cases is under investigation. They're risking their lives each shift in the county with the state's highest known infection rate.
CACTUS — To understand powerlessness in a pandemic, trace a northbound path from Amarillo up State Highway 87. Not too far shy of the border where Texas meets Oklahoma lies Moore County.
There are few easy ways to make a living in this country of feedlots and dryland cotton, but one of the hardest is at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant. Just about everything looks small on these vast flatlands until you get right up on it, but the 125-acre plant in the tiny town of Cactus is massive from any vantage point.
The steady billow of gray smoke from the plant's stacks tells you it is still running full tilt. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, it's considered essential to keep thousands of cattle running through the kill floor each day, headed for dinner tables across America.
Meat and poultry plants nationwide have emerged as incubators for coronavirus spread. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily as the number of cases and deaths tied to those facilities rose; others have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions in facilities where meatpackers often must work shoulder to shoulder.
State health investigators are tracking 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, and Moore County now has the highest reported infection rate in Texas. Yet about 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa, still report there each day.
Meatpacking has always been brutal and dangerous work, but it pays relatively well. JBS jobs have drawn generations of immigrants to this rural community, so many that Hispanics make up more than half of Moore County’s nearly 22,000 residents, and one quarter of the population is immigrants.
But the people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all.
Politically, there's hardly anyone like them to speak with their voice among the region's nearly all-white slate of elected officials. Socially, they are largely invisible, a tide of anonymous workers streaming to and from the plant each day. And economically, they are simply labor.
“The people who do show up to work are afraid to get sick, but we don’t have much of a choice,” said one plant employee who requested anonymity out of fear of losing their job.
An immigrant workforce
The stench in the air differs between Cactus and Dumas, the biggest nearby town, 13 miles to the south, but both are pungent. In Dumas, a north wind makes for a mix of manure and tannery that seeps in through car vents and penetrates restaurants. In Cactus, the wind doesn’t have to blow at all to get a stomach-turning whiff of the slaughterhouse scent lingering in the air.
The locals half-joke that it’s the smell of money. It’s really the smell of the grueling labor that’s reshaped Moore County over the last 50 years.
It started in the late 1970s, a few years after the meat processing plant — first owned by American Beef Packers, then by Swift & Co. — was established in Cactus and the prospect of jobs drew in Laotian and Vietnamese refugees. Most of those first refugees didn’t stay long, and the next decade brought an influx of Mexican workers, followed in turn by Central Americans, mostly Guatemalans.
The incoming immigration waves shifted after the raid of 2006, when the Cactus plant was targeted in Operation Wagon Train, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement roundup of undocumented workers that saw roughly 300 arrests. People who lived in the area at the time recall the highways around town were blocked off as the raid went down.
The lost workforce was quickly replaced by other categories of foreigners. Word of available jobs went out to those working in refugee resettlement, and soon enough Burmese, Sudanese and Somalian refugees were moving into the dilapidated trailers and run-down apartments left behind by the undocumented immigrants who were arrested or fled after the crackdown, including some who were authorized to be in the country.
The plant — now Brazilian-owned under the name JBS USA — roared back to life.
“Maybe 99% of workers are immigrants,” said Kor Madit Chakud, a refugee from Sudan who left his post as a tender puller at JBS in 2019. Turnover is so high that JBS doles out bonuses both for referrals and retention, Madit Chakud said. But staying exacts a price. “The more you stay long, the more you feel you’re wearing out your body and your [mind], too. It’s not only physical. It’s mental,” he said.
Thousands of cattle typically come through the plant each day. A fast-moving conveyor chain brings a steady flow of swinging carcasses to workers for butchering. Some are running saws, chucking off pieces of beef down different production lines where workers wielding sharp knives focus on pulling apart different parts of the animal. Others are responsible for carefully trimming fat; some painstakingly hack away at the last bits on bones that have already come through the line.
The influx of refugee workers has been so steady that it powered the founding of a small mosque in Cactus, where 20 to 30 Muslims come to worship, according to Ba Her, a Burmese refugee who lives next to the mosque in a green trailer home.
Today, the pay is good, with some plant workers making $16 to $22 an hour on the production floor, many without a high school degree or a GED. The jobs come with health insurance and the possibility of taking English classes. Many JBS employees don’t speak the language. And the workers’ union recently brokered a deal with JBS to temporarily increase wages by $4 an hour on top of a $600 bonus previously pledged to union members for May.
But as the coronavirus reached this rural community — it’s not certain yet from where — the treacherous work became life-threatening as plant workers began to test positive.
A cluster of cases
The nightly news comes in from an Amarillo station, its signal passing over more than 45 miles of flat Texas Panhandle. Last week, an anchor reported that the state health department was investigating a coronavirus outbreak at JBS.
JBS adapted to the virus. Supervisors handed out masks and eye protection to workers, placed plastic dividers in break areas and set up a thermal scanner to screen employees on their way in, according to posts on the plant's Facebook page. But plant workers say that management was slow in telling them — or the public — when their co-workers began testing positive, and those who came in contact with the sick were not always informed of their exposure.
Instead, word spread over private messages as colleagues checked in on those who seemingly went missing from the production floor for days. In some cases, news that a colleague had tested positive for the new coronavirus, or even that one colleague may have died, was shared on Facebook. Others shared a post by the husband of an employee who tested positive in which he wrote that JBS had instructed his wife not to disclose to her co-workers that she had been infected and not to post about it on social media.
“I won’t lie — it scares me that we have so many missing and are told to say nothing about it,” said an employee who requested anonymity for fear of risking their job.
Other employees live in apartments provided by the company, and they can’t afford to walk away, the employee said.
A family member of a JBS employee who tested positive for the coronavirus, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the employee was never informed that they had been in contact with another employee who had been infected.
A spokesperson for JBS did not respond to multiple requests for comment or specific questions about an outbreak at the plant, the company’s protocol for informing workers of positive cases or the social media posts. Plant managers have regularly pushed changes they are making at the plant on Facebook.
On April 22, an environmental assessment team from the Texas Department of State Health Services visited the plant as part of back-and-forth conversations with JBS about the changes it was making to help combat the spread of the virus. The visit came a day after the state health department confirmed it was investigating an outbreak at the JBS plant. By then, there was a cluster of 114 cases associated with the plant, though not all of the cases are people living in Moore County.
A spokeswoman for the department said the assessment team noted that JBS had implemented its previous recommendations and was following “all of the best practices for an essential business to remain in operation.” Days after the visit, the cluster had grown to 159 cases.
“They have no choice”
Every election year, talk turns to how Texas is changing. As the Hispanic population in particular continues to grow, some see the prospect of a power shift away from the still dominantly white, conservative structure just over the horizon.
But Moore County is a case study in how rural Texas is changing, and how it is not.
This region’s fabled, mostly white cowboy culture long ago gave way to a sort of rural cultural mosaic. Hispanics whose families began transforming this place decades ago are now the majority in Dumas, the county seat, and the economy is underpinned by an agricultural workforce of immigrants who have kept this place alive. They work the dairies, ride the feed-yard pens and run the JBS production line.
Yet political and social wealth remain largely centered in a white power structure deeply settled in the southern Great Plains. The Dumas City Council remains all white. Just one of the four county commissioners is Hispanic. Only one of the seven board members who run the Dumas schools is not white.
A combination of factors — prejudice, fear, language barriers — partly explain the gulf between what Hispanic and immigrant workers provide Dumas and Moore County, and the relatively meager share of power they’re afforded. But the gap is also largely about roots. The immigrants come for well-paying but brutal jobs. Many tend to move along when their bodies wear out.
Even as a single father needing to support two kids, Madit Chakud barely made it three years at the plant.
A tall, stocky man of a soft-spoken nature, Madit Chakud fled a Sudan torn apart by violence and civil war and sought refugee status in Egypt. He was resettled in Dallas nearly 20 years ago but moved to Amarillo, where he worked in a beef processing plant for a decade. It was his faith that brought him to Cactus and, more specifically, to the Cactus Nazarene Ministry Center to serve as a pastor. Until last year, that job didn’t come with a salary, so he turned to JBS.
Months after leaving the plant, Madit Chakud carries complicated feelings about it. He recognizes the economic boon it offers to immigrants who make in one eight-hour shift what it would take a minimum-wage worker nearly three shifts to make. But the job is so dangerous and demanding that Madit Chakud practically vibrates when he speaks to how inhumane it all felt, how he feels the job keeps fellow refugees down, how disposable it makes them seem.
“They have no choice. They have to take care of their family here. They have to take care of families back home. Because of their status, they didn’t go to school. People are taken advantage of — that’s what I realized,” he said. “People are running like crazy. People are getting hurt. … People are trapped. It’s horrible.”
Local leaders readily acknowledge that their foreign-born neighbors play a crucial role in propping up life here. Without them, perhaps Dumas would be one of the many withering rural communities on the southern Great Plains.
“We need a workforce, and nobody wants to do those jobs,” Moore County Judge Rowdy Rhoades said months ago from the county courthouse in downtown Dumas.
Rhoades knows that sounds bad. But he also knows it to be true.
The county derives a hefty portion of its financial base from the dairies and ranches that depend on immigrants from Latin America. JBS, with its workforce of refugees and immigrants, is the county's second-largest taxpayer.
That leaves Hispanic residents, immigrants and refugees in Moore County living in a county that voted for a president whose immigration policies could upend many of their lives, and where even the local government hardly looks like them. Moore County remains deep red, giving Trump 75% of its vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Longtime Hispanic residents remain so intensely haunted by memories of the ICE raid in December 2006 that they break into tears when talking about the day the meat processing plant was left almost empty and the school left full of children whose parents never came to pick them up. Orlando and Brissa Carrillo, a pair of Mexican immigrants who have found a foothold in the community as the owners of a small Mexican bakery on Dumas’ main street, describe how Hispanic residents go into hiding when word of workplace immigration busts in other parts of the state or the country reach Moore County.
“Sometimes the town feels it here. They even prefer not to go out,” Orlando Carillo said in Spanish from behind the counter of his business on a slow day months before the coronavirus outbreak. “You don’t see as many Hispanic people out.”
The couple live with some of that fear themselves. Their days are weighed down by the dread of how their lives could be interrupted when they’re not in their home or their business.
“It’s the fear of what would happen to the children if something happened to us,” Brissa Carillo said in Spanish. “You learn you have to follow every single rule. You can’t mess up even a little bit. It’s constant pressure that comes with knowing you have no right to make a mistake.”
“Our Achilles heel”
When the coronavirus first “came down,” Rhoades said his first call as county judgewas to JBS.
Moore County depends on JBS, as does the nation’s food supply chain. Rhoades, who boasts a drawl but speaks almost in a whisper even in a crisis, knows how hard a plant closing would hit his county.
Pressed about a potential outbreak at JBS, he focuses on the changes the company has made to its operations to fight the virus, listing them off with a familiarity that makes them sound like lines in the protective orders he’s enacted in the county. And he attributes the county’s high infection rate to rapid testing. Moore County is using the more common test for the virus, but it’s also relying on quick antibody tests the state health department has approved.
“If you look at the numbers, JBS hires probably 3,000 people,” he said. “Common sense is more people at JBS are going to be positive than at our school district, than our hospital. We have people testing positive at the hospital. We’ve got people at other industries besides JBS.”
But the coronavirus hasn’t remained at the plant when workers finish their shifts and head to their homes in Cactus, in Dumas, down in Amarillo and up in Oklahoma. Members of the community, including church workers whose family members work at the plant, have also tested positive.
The way Jeff Turner sees it, caring for a largely agricultural community where most workers are considered essential and have continued interacting with others at work makes it more challenging to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
The chief executive of the Moore County Hospital District is grappling with how the very economic linchpin that has allowed the community to stand resilient during past economic swings or recessions is now putting it at greater risk.
“The very things that have been our strengths historically are now perhaps contributing to our higher infection rate,” Turner said. “That’s kind of a weird thing to think about because we are diverse, we are essential, we are rural and agriculture, and we’re oil and gas. We’re all those things, and that’s given us an amount of diversity [that’s different] for more rural communities. But that may very well be our Achilles heel when it comes to a pandemic kind of situation.”
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