Isabel Castillo phoned in to the Harrisonburg City Council meeting Tuesday night on behalf of her friend whose family of poultry plant workers was “devastated” by the pandemic. Seven members of her family contracted the virus. Two were hospitalized in critical condition. Her grandmother died.
“Today I am overcome with grief,” Castillo read from her friend’s notes. “I fear for my family and friends’ lives who work in the poultry plants.”
Twelve other city residents who called to speak at the meeting echoed Castillo’s concerns for the safety of local poultry workers.
Members from several grassroots organizations, such as Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers and the Shenandoah Socialist Collective, called on the council to demand that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) protects workers by scaling back reopening. The Shenandoah Socialist Collective is circling a worker's petition on Facebook to delay phase one reopening in Harrisonburg, earning 348 signatures as of Wednesday.
Nearly every caller mentioned their fear for poultry plant workers’ safety. Hundreds of poultry workers line up elbow-to-elbow in the two plants in the city. Hundreds more flood the five other plants in surrounding locales. When on the line, Snell-Feikema said that poultry workers work so closely that social distancing isn’t possible.
On May 20, the director of the Central Shenandoah Health District unveiled that 317 Shenandoah Valley poultry workers tested positive for COVID-19 in an email to local activist Michael Snell-Feikema, a member of Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers. The email doesn’t break down how many cases are in each of the seven plants in the Valley because the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) won’t disclose that information.
“This is about people suffering. This is about some people dying,” Snell-Feikema said. “You cannot trust what companies say when they’re motivated by profits.”
There are 746 cases of COVID-19 in Harrisonburg and 21 deaths according to the most recent data provided by VDH on Wednesday. Latino residents make up about 20% of the city’s population but account for 37% of its positive cases as of May 1. Area poultry plants are largely staffed by Latino workers.
City residents urged council to close the plants and provide comprehensive testing for poultry plant workers and their families. A few community members also signaled the need for whistleblower protections for workers who sound the alarm on plants that don’t meet state standards.
Snell-Feikema cited that when VDH tested 3,100 people at two poultry plants on the Eastern Shore, 18% of workers tested positive for COVID-19. He said the council should send Northam a resolution demanding that the same measures are afforded in Harrisonburg.
Restaurant and retail employees also phoned in to the meeting to demand a pause to phase one reopenings in Harrisonburg. Haley Springer is a member of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective and an employee at a local restaurant. She said she’s obligated to return to work or she’ll lose her job — something that worries her because while wait staff is required to wear masks, restaurant goers aren’t.
“Why is my city council telling me that it’s safe to go to a job where I’m not able to socially distance … when they don’t even think it’s safe to sit behind a desk at a public meeting?” Springer said, referencing how meetings were transformed in the wake of the coronavirus to a streamed collage of council members from the waist up in their home offices.
Springer said that while restaurant workers haven’t traditionally been a politically organized group, that’s changing. She said that if the council fails to act, “there will be consequences.”
Councilman Chris Jones said he won’t “cower” from the threats.
Mayor Deeana Reed was also taken aback by the flurry of negative comments against the council. She said Vice Mayor Sal Romero has been a “driving voice” for poultry plant workers since the pandemic hit by conducting video updates on Facebook and speaking with state officials and local families.
Romero said the pandemic is “personal” to him. His wife and father have recently recovered from COVID-19 and at least five other people in his family have contracted the virus. Now, he fears for his mom and dad who go to work every day in the poultry industry.
Also at the meeting, the council unanimously approved the action plan for spending the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which will in part provide aid to organizations hit by the coronavirus. The plan will be sent to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approval by the end of June.
This year, HUD allocated $534,269 to the city. That sum fused with over $80,000 in unspent funding from previous years and over $300,000 in CDBG CARES Act funding combined for a total of $936,686 in available funds.
HUD allocated the funds to revitalize neighborhoods, expand affordable housing and economic opportunities and improve community facilities and services. Over 125 organizations petitioned the city for the funding.
Housing and property improvements will be made with $164,000 of the grant, $271,400 will go toward sidewalk projects, $106,853 will go toward city administration and $80,140 will go toward various public services organizations like Meals on Wheels, JMU’s Suitcase Clinic and Way to Go. The CARES funding is also being split among these organizations with an additional $250,000 going toward small business grants and loans.
Reed said Harrisonburg tests more than most localities in Virginia, administering 315 free tests last Wednesday and offering 500 more free tests this Thursday. She said she believes “testing saves lives.” Reed also reported that the council has spoken with other elected officials such as Del. Tony Wilt (R) and Sen. Mark Warner (D) to advocate for poultry workers.
“Please don’t say we’re not doing anything because that’s not true,” Reed said. “The only way we’re going to get through this thing is if we’re responsible for each other.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.