Special Report: In Oklahoma pork-packing town, COVID stirs fear, faith and sorrow
Over 25 years, the massive pork plant that dominates this small city brought jobs, new residents and an economic lifeline to a slowly shrinking farming community.
A worker at a hog processing plant eats behind plexiglass screens installed in the facility’s cafeteria to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) within the plant, in Guymon, Oklahoma, U.S.
Attracted by relatively good wages at Seaboard Foods, immigrants like Felix and Pilar Jimenez arrived by the hundreds to slaughter hogs and process meat for shipment all over the world. The Mexican couple started work in Guymon, on the vast plains of Oklahoma’s panhandle, about a year after the plant opened, followed in time by their sons Michael, now 26, and Anthony, 22.
In recent months, as in so many U.S. cities with meat- packing operations, COVID-19 ripped through the plant and surrounding community, bringing economic uncertainty, fear and – in the case of the Jimenez family – tragedy.
Seaboard reports that, as of May 21, 641 of its some 2,700 employees tested positive for the virus – roughly a quarter of its workforce. Pilar, Michael and Anthony Jimenez all got sick. So did Felix, 56, who had been mostly homebound as he recovered from heart bypass surgery. He died May 9.
Guymon is part of the coronavirus’ new frontier – mostly rural communities with large meatpacking plants where employees often work inches apart, carpool to their jobs and live in crowded or multi-generational homes.
Interviewed at the family’s apartment days after his father’s death, Michael Jimenez said Guymon residents need to wake up to the dangers of the coronavirus, something that extends beyond the plant and especially threatens older and medically fragile people like Felix.
“I just hope the whole community realizes how fatal this can be,” said Michael Jimenez, speaking through a protective mask.
It’s difficult to pin down how each of the Jimenez family members got the disease. Pilar and her sons say any of them could have caught it at the packing plant, then infected Felix.
“I think we brought the virus home to him,” said Pilar Jimenez, 53, who lived with both Anthony and Felix.
Michael Jimenez said Felix never left the apartment except to walk the dog, and then only with a mask, adding that he and Anthony worked alongside a co-worker who they later learned was ill.
On the other hand, the virus is circulating in the wider community, not just at the plant. Texas County, where the plant is located, had recorded 820 cases as of Friday morning, including four deaths.
Despite the high rate of infection among plant workers, the company has reported no deaths among employees.
Duke Sand, chief executive officer of Seaboard Foods, told News Journos the company is adhering to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on how to contain the virus at the plant, including timetables on when affected employees should return to work and what safety equipment, such as screens and masks, to give them.
Sand said the company, a subsidiary of Seaboard Corp, has been fortunate in that it saw its first case in mid-April, well after other meatpacking facilities around the country. Other plants have been less transparent with their numbers – for instance, Smithfield Foods [SFII.UL], the world’s largest hog processor, declined in a May 8 statement to News Journos to confirm case totals at its numerous facilities, citing the need to respect employees’ privacy.
Asked about Felix Jimenez’ death, Seaboard’s Sand said: “The purpose of this testing is that we don’t have any tragedies such as that.”
As in many meat-packing towns around the country, local leaders and residents are torn about how to address the new threat, which pits the economic needs of employees and local businesses against rapidly growing health risks to everyone in the community.
The Seaboard plant, where wages start at $16 per hour, is by far the largest employer in the city of fewer than 11,300 people. The plant is both a linchpin of the local economy and a hot spot in the nation’s battle against the new coronavirus.
Opinions about the dangers of the virus do not necessarily fall along neat or predictable lines, interviews with about two dozen local residents show. Although the population is small, Guymon and Texas County are demographically and politically complex.
The county, where about 70% of plant workers live, is a Republican stronghold in the heart of the U.S. Bible Belt, and it overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump in 2016. Yet residents have diverse backgrounds: Plant workers come from North America, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Some 41% of households in the county speak languages other than English at home, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.
The city of Guymon, which was majority white at the turn of the century, is now more than half Hispanic or Latino. The plant dominates the economy but many agricultural businesses operate around it, mostly owned by whites.
As different as residents are, their lives intersect. The city’s many businesses rely on the immigrants as customers and workers, and some local businesses are owned by minorities and immigrants. Nearly everyone seems to either work at the plant or know someone who does.
Support for the company seems to run hot and cold depending on feedback from a friend or a brother-in-law. Several workers expressed fear of going to work but fear, in equal measure, of losing their jobs if they complained.
The main point of contention appears to be how seriously to take the threat of the coronavirus.
For now, Seaboard confirmed, its employees appear to account for roughly half of Texas County’s COVID-19 cases. The numbers are in flux: Not every employee has been tested and the county’s confirmed caseload is steadily rising with expanded testing.
What’s certain is that the virus respects no boundaries, said Dr. Martin Bautista, who already is working with other physicians to contain infections at Guymon’s nursing home, where he said one patient has died.
“It’s a virus. It doesn’t recognize the color of your skin, socio-economic status, nothing.”
Still, some people in Guymon are dismissive of the COVID-19 risk, calling mask wearers “sheep” or suggesting God will protect those who have faith.
“Being country people, it seems like our immunity is a lot higher, and we have Jesus,” says Kalye Griffin, 42, owner of the Top Hand Western Store.
Local leaders say language barriers can hamper basic health messages about what precautions to take.
“There are multiple languages in Guymon, said City Manager Joe Dunham. “People just don’t understand the gravity of the situation that we’re in.””
Other residents are eager to get the economy back on track.
Oklahoma was one of a handful of states that did not issue statewide stay-at-home orders as the coronavirus picked up steam. Texas County closed nonessential businesses relatively late, compared to the rest of the country, on March 28. And it was among the first to reopen, on April 24.
“I don’t think we should have closed,” said Suzanne Bryan, as she waved at passing motorists outside her food and gift shop on Guymon’s red cobbled Main Street. “It’s like the flu, there is a 98-99% survival rate.”
Although the precise mortality rate for the coronavirus is not known, medical experts say they believe it exceeds 1%, more than 10 times the rate for the flu.
In any event, Bryan, a member of the evangelical Christian Guymon Church of the Nazarene, said God is in control of what happens. “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s God’s plan.”
Several Hispanic or Latino business owners with family or friends at the plant told News Journos Seaboard should be doing more to protect employees. They said they knew of people pressured to return to work too soon after being ill.
“They care about production, not workers,” said Cuban immigrant José Francisco Linares, who runs the Papachongo’s Restaurant and Market close to the Jimenez home.
News Journos was not able to independently confirm allegations of pressure to return to work. Seaboard CEO Sand said the company is advising workers to follow CDC guidance: Allowing at least 10 days to elapse since symptoms such as fever first appeared, and at least three days since they resolved.
Business owner Ivan Lorenzo said he is baffled as to why the plant has not shut in a county that has no health facilities capable of treating coronavirus. As in many rural areas in the United States, the local hospital is tiny, with limited equipment, beds and medical personnel.
“This is what happens when a big company like that comes to a little town like this,” said Lorenzo, 42, speaking from his shop, Ivan Barber Studio, on Main Street, where he said employees wear masks and gloves and work six feet apart. “They do whatever they want.”
Asked whether he was prepared to close the plant depending on test results, Sand said: “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be in the best interests of the employees.”
THOUSANDS INFECTED, DOZENS DEAD
The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to the $185 billion U.S. meat and poultry processing industry, which employs 68,000 people as slaughterers and meat trimmers, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Labor Department.
Such plants have proved devastatingly effective vectors of disease.
In the meatpacking industry generally, thousands of employees have been infected with the coronavirus and dozens have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). Seaboard jointly operates another pork processing plant in Sioux City, Iowa, where 59 cases have been reported among workers.
Although Seaboard never shut its plants, about 30 facilities operated by other companies temporarily closed in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and several other Midwestern states, according to the UFCW. Pork and beef slaughter capacity dropped by 30% to 40%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To avoid further decline in a major food supply, U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of April ordered meat plants stay open during the pandemic.
At least 14 plants have re-opened, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with some installing barriers between work stations and taking other safety measures.
Trump says that has reduced the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“They had a disproportionately high number of people that had the problem, and that’s going away,” the president said at a White House news conference on Tuesday. “The plants are very, very clean now.”
SICKNESS AND FEAR
Infections in Texas County surfaced slowly, in rural communities surrounding Guymon, with the first one emerging March 28, according to Texas County data.
Around mid-April, a Seaboard employee tested positive, according to the company. After that, the plant offered to pay for voluntary testing at local clinics for employees who reported symptoms, or had close contact with infected people. The case count spiraled upward.
By mid-May, when the company offered mass testing, sickness and fear had pushed absentee rates as high as 30%, and daily slaughter fell from the normal 22,000 hogs per day to as low as 10,000 some days, according to plant General Manager Rick Sappington.
Martin Rosas, the local UFCW president, said he appreciated the company’s response to the crisis.
Seaboard agreed to a union proposal for paid sick leave to motivate workers to report symptoms and self-quarantine at home, Rosas said. It also agreed to test the temperatures of all workers entering the plant and to pay them an extra $2 an hour to compensate for the hazards of working during the outbreak, he said.
“We have had a very positive response from Seaboard,” Rosas said.
Like other plants, Seaboard has instituted attendance bonuses – separate from hazard pay – which amount to an extra $100 a week. Some critics, speaking about businesses generally, have said giving bonuses for showing up can incentivize employees to work when ill.
Seaboard CEO Sand said that is not the company’s purpose.
“We are being very upfront about making sure employees know that if you’re feeling any symptoms, not feeling right, report that to us, see your doctors, stay home,” he said.
Guymon Mayor Sean Livengood, 30, said the reopening of the city will continue apace. “At this point there’s no pullback,” he told News Journos.
A production manager at the Seaboard plant, he is optimistic about the town’s re-emergence from the shutdown, and stresses that residents should use their best judgment on whether it is safe for them, personally, to venture out.
“The big thing for us is if you don’t feel comfortable going out, please don’t go out,” he said.
Harold Tyson, the county emergency manager, is less sanguine about reopening, urging painstaking caution.
“I would like for us to slow down,” Tyson said, “and we’re not.”
Nancy Schmid, CEO of the county’s only hospital, Memorial Hospital of Texas County, is worried, too. Recently released from quarantine because of exposure to COVID-positive employees, she has tested negative for the virus and is busy running a 25-bed facility that’s ill-equipped for a pandemic.
She said the facility lacks air purification machines to prevent the spread of the virus inside. The hospital is being overwhelmed with potential COVID-19 patients seeking diagnostic services such as X-rays and CT-scans, she said, but it does not have enough doctors and other medical staff to treat the people as inpatients. As a result, county residents need to be sent as far away as Oklahoma City, a four-hour car ride, for care.
“We need doctors more than New York City,” she said.
Though his family initially took Felix Jimenez to a local clinic, he rapidly deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t be treated in Guymon.
Within days of falling ill in early May, he was rushed to a hospital in Liberal, Kansas, 40 miles away, and later placed on a ventilator. Then, doctors opted to fly him by helicopter to Amarillo, Texas, for dialysis.
He grew gravely ill mid-flight and the pilot turned around. Felix died where the helicopter landed, in the parking lot of the Kansas hospital.
Michael Jimenez is troubled, not just by his father’s ordeal, but by the prospect that an experience just as horrible might await other vulnerable members of the Guymon community.
Residents don’t always appreciate plant workers like his parents, he said. “They don’t understand some of these people left everything they had to provide for their families.”
After immigrating with Pilar from Mexico 30 years ago, Felix Jimenez spent his life bouncing among meatpacking jobs in Iowa, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. He was known in Guymon not just for the friendships he built at work, but for his involvement with the city’s Catholic Church and youth sports group.
After his retirement for health reasons seven years ago, Felix began buying, fixing and selling cars, his son said. He earned a reputation for being able to start any motor.
Kids who missed the school bus knew they could knock on his door to get a lift, Michael Jimenez said. Felix’s sons leaned on him too. “The one who was always there was my dad,” Michael Jimenez said.
Growing up, the Jimenez brothers thought of finding jobs in the oil and gas industry, but Felix steered them toward the plant, citing its stable hours and steady pay. The four of them worked all over the facility, from the “kill floor” to pork-belly freezing to shipping.
Now that his father is gone and others in the family have mostly recovered from COVID-19, Michael is worried about their return to work.
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Pilar has diabetes and a heart stent, and Michael fears she could be reinfected. Experts say reinfections appear unlikely in the short term but they don’t know how long immunity in recovered patients may last.
“She’s vulnerable,” Michael Jimenez said of his mother. “We have to protect her.”
He added that the family also must pay the rent.