Health or wages: Foster Farms employees faced difficult decisions as COVID-19 outbreak nears 400

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LIVINGSTON, California. (KGPE) – The Merced County Department of Public Health is calling the Foster Farms COVID-19 the “most severe and long-lasting” in the county. 

As of Saturday, 392 employees have tested positive for the virus. Eight have died including Melinda Chavira’s friend Mike. 

Chavira worked at Foster Farms in Southern California for 15 years and was laid off before the pandemic in 2019. She still kept in touch with her former coworkers and was saddened to hear the news Mike passed away having met him when he was a truck driver based out of Livingston.

“He was funny and outspoken. He was always cracking jokes. He loved his family, his wife, and two boys,” said Chavira.

The Merced County Department of Public Health ordered the processing plant temporarily shut down due to the outbreak beginning Tuesday evening. Other areas of the complex not impacted by the outbreak are allowed to continue operations, they said. 

The processing plant will close for six days until September 7. During the closure, Foster Farms said all impacted employees will be paid. They will complete two rounds of deep cleaning and two rounds of mass employee testing to ensure all employees who return to work after the closure are COVID-free, the company said. 

But some former employees like Zakiya Jenkins feels they could have done more to prevent the spread from the beginning. Jenkins said she worked there for about a month after she was recruited by a hiring agency in July. She said they never informed her of any positive cases despite the health department declaring it an outbreak on June 29. She said if she knew of the cases she would have chosen not to take the job. 

When she started she said she was provided personal protective equipment and there were efforts to keep workers safe but it wasn’t enough to make her feel comfortable. 

“There was no social distancing, everyone was lined up next to each other, they tried to have sheilds in front of people but no one kind of obeyed the rules to keep them in front of us,” described Jenkins. 

She quit in August, but understands others who provide for their families may not choose to do the same, as the virus continues to disproportionally impact essential workers especially people of color. 

Foster Farms said in a statement Monday, 

“Foster Farms, like all poultry producers, faced the near-insurmountable challenge of continuing to bring its products to the family table, while protecting our employees. While we recognize that our efforts have not been sufficiently successful, this has not been for lack of effort nor motivated by financial gain.”

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