Court orders Foster Farms chicken plant to give workers PPE

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A chicken processing plant in central California that saw a deadly coronavirus outbreak must provide its workers with masks and follow a raft of other anti-COVID-19 health orders, a court ruled Wednesday.

A judge in Merced County granted a temporary restraining order sought by the United Farm Workers of America union against Foster Farms, where a virus outbreak at its Livingston facility — one of the world’s largest chicken plants — killed nine people and sickened hundreds earlier this year. The plant was temporarily ordered to close.

Another outbreak two weeks ago at another processing plant in Fresno forced that plant to shut down for a deep cleaning, although it later reopened.

California’s heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley has seen its COVID-19 infection rate explode. Hospitals there have been out of normal intensive care unit beds for days, forcing them to use other makeshift areas to treat patients.

Food chain hard hit

Around the nation, meatpacking plants have been among the hardest-hit sites for COVID-19. Workers, many of them immigrants, often work in close quarters and live in packed housing. More than 44,000 workers nationwide have tested positive for the virus, and more than 200 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an investigative nonprofit.

The restraining order, which lasts until a January 29 court hearing, requires the Livingston plant to supply face masks to workers and make sure they wear masks or face shields where social distancing isn’t possible.

Other sanitation and hygiene measures are also required, including temperature and health screenings for visitors and workers before they can enter the plant, and installing physical dividers in break rooms and on production lines where it’s hard for workers to remain socially distant.

The plant also must inform all employees in English, Spanish and Punjabi of testing requirements, outbreaks and safety training.

In a statement, Foster Farms said it has been working with Merced County health officials and that some of the measures contained in the injunction are already in place, including testing and mask-wearing requirements. The company is also installing special filters in shared areas at its processing plants.

The company has performed more than 25,000 virus tests at the Livingston facility since September. Its positivity rate among workers is far below the rate for Merced County as a whole, the company said.

Foster Farms employs about 12,000 people in turkey processing in Turlock and at chicken plants in Livingston, Fresno and Porterville as well as outside of California, in Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Alabama. About 3,750 people work at the Livingston facility.

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