By Mica Rosenberg
MORTON, Mississippi (Reuters) – The Koch Foods chicken-processing plant dominates the small town of Morton, where even the sides of the roads are dotted with feathers.
For more than a decade, the lives of Pedro Vasquez and Zoila Orozco have revolved around the plant. It set the stage for some of their greatest joys: They fell in love there, had a little boy and eventually saved enough money to buy a small house in town, far from their native Guatemala.
It also has been the source of some of their most profound sorrows: Zoila claims she was the victim of an abusive supervisor there years ago, and last August, Pedro was swept up in a massive raid at the plant targeting immigrants working in the United States illegally. Nine months later, he’s still being held.
Now, more than 150 miles apart, they both tested positive for the novel coronavirus within a week of each other as their lives intersected with two hotbeds for the pandemic in the United States: immigration detention centers and meatpacking plants.
President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order aimed at reinforcing the country’s meat supply chain by keeping plants open, despite concerns about rising infections at the facilities. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said last week that at least 30 meatpacking workers across the country have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and at least 10,000 have contracted it.
Scott County, where Koch Foods employs about 3,000 people, including those at the Morton plant, has the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in Mississippi, according to a Reuters analysis of Mississippi State Department of Health data compared to population data from the U.S. Census. Elizabeth Grey, a spokeswoman from the department, said the state epidemiologist found about one-third of the cases in the county are among employees of chicken-processing plants. It is unclear where Zoila contracted the virus.
At the same time, nearly 950 detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody have tested positive for the virus, and one detainee has died of complications from the disease. But only around 1,800 out of the nearly 30,000 being held nationally have been tested, according to ICE. One of the largest outbreaks is in Richwood, the facility in Louisiana where Pedro is now being held. As of May 13, 64 people there had been infected, in the third-biggest outbreak among immigration detention centers in the country, according to ICE.
Zoila’s income at Koch Foods, which strongly denies her abuse allegations from more than a decade ago, is now the family’s only source of support. As her symptoms progressively worsen in quarantine, she worries about the future of her job.
With Trump’s order aimed at keeping meatpacking plants open, families like theirs across the country are facing difficult choices of how to maintain livelihoods while keeping themselves safe in the middle of a terrifying pandemic that has already killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide.
When the coronavirus started sweeping through ICE detention centers and meat-processing plants, Pedro and Zoila didn’t want to worry each other.
Pedro didn’t tell Zoila for days after he started feeling feverish with severe stomach pains that he had tested positive for the virus and been placed in quarantine with a couple dozen other sick men.
“He would only say, ‘Oh, I have a little cold,’ or, ‘My throat hurts.’ He didn’t want to scare me,” Zoila said.
And when she came down with terrible body aches and fatigue, she kept quiet at first, too.
“I didn’t want to tell him how bad I feel,” she said. “He is already in jail – I don’t want to make it worse for him in there. When you really love someone, you try to imply something positive to make them feel better.”
When Pedro and Zoila met at the plant, she inspected cut chicken for quality, and he loaded packed boxes of meat.
“We worked together in the same area,” Pedro, 51, recalled over a series of telephone interviews – in 15-minute increments – from detention. They became a couple eight years ago; she was having problems with her husband, Pedro said, and he had split with his wife in Guatemala.
“I had been alone in the United States for a long time. So, when I saw her by herself, she would ask for help and I would give her rides,” he said. “Little by little we got to know each other.”
Zoila, 42, said she started working when she was only 8, traveling with her father and 11 siblings to pick coffee for months out of the year. Pedro grew crops on his family’s small plot of land. More than a decade ago, lured by the promise of better wages in the United States, they made their way to Mississippi, where relatives had already settled and found jobs in the sprawling chicken industry.
They both eventually moved to the deboning section of the plant, Pedro said, where he would rapidly slice more than 1,000 pounds of chicken a day with large knives. The work was grueling – long days on their feet with few breaks – but it paid more than their previous positions, because they earned per weight of meat processed instead of by the hour. Pedro was able to send half of his biweekly check of around $700 to his three older daughters back in Guatemala. The money helped put them through school and they all graduated with professional degrees, he said proudly.
After Pedro and Zoila moved in together and had their son, Jostin, they bought a small cream-colored house in town with a front porch, roses and manicured bushes lining the lawn.
“I don’t want my son to suffer like I suffered as a child,” Zoila said of Jostin, whose 7th birthday is next week. “We want him to grow up well and study so he can end up better than us.”
Although the pay far outstripped anything they could have earned in Guatemala, life at the plant wasn’t always easy.
Pedro said that before they became a couple, he saw Zoila being harassed and berated by one supervisor he didn’t name, including an incident in which the supervisor tried to stuff raw chicken in her mouth when he found a piece that had gone through quality control without having been completely deboned.
Others working at the plant at the time had similar complaints. In 2018, the Illinois-based Koch Foods paid nearly $4 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of more than 100 workers at the Morton plant over claims the company knew – or should have known – of sexual and physical assaults against its Hispanic workers from 2004 to 2008. Zoila said she started working at the plant soon after arriving in the United States in 2006; Pedro said he started a year later before leaving for a few years and then returning full time in 2010.
The lawsuit, which Zoila said she participated in, began as an individual complaint that was later picked up by the EEOC. Workers alleged that a manager would grope women while they were cutting meat, punch employees and throw chicken parts at them. They also alleged that supervisors coerced payments for everything from medical leave and promotions to bathroom breaks.
A spokesman for the EEOC said the agency couldn’t confirm or deny whether Zoila was part of the lawsuit because of privacy laws. An attorney involved in the litigation on behalf of plaintiffs said some workers who didn’t officially sign on to the lawsuit were still victims of abuse.
Mark Kaminsky, the chief operating officer at Koch, said the company admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement and maintains that all the allegations in the lawsuit are false. He added that he believed the plaintiffs made uncorroborated claims against the company as a means to obtain visas for crime victims who collaborate with U.S. authorities. He said there was “zero evidence” that incidents like the one Pedro described ever took place.
In the wake of the allegations, Pedro said there was a management shake-up and life at the plant improved.
Then one morning last year, everything changed.
The couple had just arrived on Aug. 7 and were donning their gear to start on the cutting line when ICE officers surrounded the plant and closed off the exits so no one could leave. In coordinated raids, authorities arrested 680 people at more than half a dozen agricultural processing plants owned by five companies across the state. At the Morton plant, 243 workers were caught up in the raid.
It was the biggest workplace sweep in the country since December 2006 and became a symbol of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on immigrants living or working in the United States illegally, a central goal of his administration. Koch Foods said it has been vigilant about complying with employment eligibility laws and is cooperating with the government’s investigations.
Zoila, who says she has legal permission to work in the United States, was briefly held and then sent home. But Pedro, who does not, was taken into custody.
“At first I wasn’t too worried. I thought they would only go after people who had criminal records, like for something violent or drunk driving, or people who had been deported before. I don’t have anything like that,” Pedro said from detention. “I never thought I would be where I am now.”
Since that day, he’s been fighting in immigration court to stay in the United States, losing his initial case and now waiting on an appeal. He hopes ICE will release him to wait with his family while his appeal is decided. He is arguing that his deportation after more than a decade in the United States would cause extreme hardship for his family.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox confirmed the details of Pedro’s arrest and detention and said federal law allows for anyone in the country illegally to be deported solely for that reason. He said the agency did not have a record of Zoila, which he said could be an indication of her legal documentation.
“We are just working people,” Zoila said. “We are just trying to earn money so we can feed our families. I don’t know why they don’t release him. He is an older man who is not doing anything wrong, not a kid who goes around getting in trouble.”
Attorneys at the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm, submitted a request to ICE for humanitarian parole for Pedro, arguing that detention centers such as Richwood are “particularly ill-equipped” to contain the spread of dangerous infectious diseases such as the novel coronavirus.
ICE has said it is encouraging its detention centers to follow all U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Cox said he couldn’t comment on any detainee’s specific medical conditions or treatment but that anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus is isolated.
Zoila says their son, Jostin, still doesn’t fully understand what happened to his father.
“He asks me a lot of questions,” she said. “He asks why his father doesn’t have papers like I do. He asks why I didn’t do more to stop them from taking him away. He asks why his father can’t just run away from the detention center. It’s so painful.”
With Pedro detained – and later moved across state lines to Louisiana – Zoila went back to work, taking on extra shifts to cover expenses.
Pedro had been complaining of a sore throat and cough for weeks before he was moved into quarantine and tested April 14 for coronavirus, according to his medical records.
Then, on April 21, Zoila got the call she had also tested positive for the virus.
While Pedro slowly recovered and was eventually moved back into the detention center’s general population, Zoila took a turn for the worse, losing her appetite and having trouble getting out of bed. One day, she felt so bad she called 911 and was taken to the hospital. But, she said, the doctors sent her home with some pills.
“I feel like there are knives in my throat,” she said on Friday. On Saturday, more than two weeks after her diagnosis, she felt too shaky to even take more than a few steps around the house. She recently has been diagnosed with pneumonia.
Pedro worries that her body was left weakened by all the extra work she took on at the plant during his detention, making her symptoms worse.
Roger Doolittle, attorney for the UFCW local union that represents workers at the Koch plants in Morton and nearby Forest, said he was aware of a handful of positive cases at the Mississippi plants.
Kaminsky, from Koch Foods, said he couldn’t provide exact numbers of workers infected at the company’s poultry operations but said they aren’t experiencing the kind of mass outbreaks that have shut down beef and pork plants around the country. He said the company is taking every precaution to protect workers, including daily temperature checks and nightly cleaning of the facility with sanitizers and virus-killing chemicals. It’s also training workers about social distancing, staggering lunch breaks and reducing production where possible, he said.
“We are certainly cognizant that there is balancing act between feeding the nation and keeping our people safe,” he said. With the country already reeling from the economic and social effects of the public health crisis, he believes there is a real danger to slashing meat production.
“I know one thing that causes mass panic,” he said. “No food.”
Workers who test positive for the virus can access sick time, Kaminsky said, but it may not be enough to cover them for two weeks, the recommended time for quarantine.
Zoila said she’s still figuring out how to collect her last paycheck and isn’t sure when she might be recovered enough to return to work.
Adding to her stress, she said, the father of her two adult children died in recent days after complaining of coronavirus-like symptoms. He lived in town and worked in landscaping, but never was tested.
The money Zoila has available to deposit in Pedro’s phone account in detention is dwindling. They can only talk for a few minutes at a time, and she doesn’t pass the phone to Jostin for fear of infecting him.
Even before she got sick, she was struggling to help Jostin with schoolwork. She has limited schooling and doesn’t speak English, and had relied heavily on Pedro. Now it is even more difficult for her because Jostin is learning remotely at home while separated in a different room from her.
During the series of phone calls, it was only when he spoke of Zoila falling ill and having to quarantine herself from Jostin that Pedro began to cry. “I just think about my son,” he said. “What is he going to do all by himself?”
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Courtland Wells in Morton, Mississippi.)