A Georgia Chicken Town Reels After a Plant Disaster
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The morning after a nitrogen leak in a chicken plant killed six people in the self-proclaimed poultry capital of the world, nearly everyone in its big Latino community choked down their grief and fear and did what they had come to Gainesville to do.
They woke up before sunrise on Friday and went to work.
On Catalina Drive, a tidy street of vinyl-sided houses near the scene of Thursday’s accident, workers pulled out of driveways in dusty pickup trucks, or zipped off to the plants in little sedans with antiviral masks around their chins.
Up on the Atlanta highway, other workers were shuttled to the chicken plants by the armada of local taxis — with names like Taxi Quetzal, Taxi Solano’s, Fiesta Cab — that has become a crucial workaround for the many undocumented immigrants who do not want to risk being pulled over and possibly deported.
Nina Baca, 18, answered her door just after dawn, the habitual stench from the plants spoiling the crisp and cloud-free January morning. Ms. Baca had worked the overnight shift on Thursday a short distance from the accident site. It was all business as usual, she said, except for the beginning.
“We just gathered around to pray for the people who lost their family,” Ms. Baca said.
Of the six people killed on Thursday by the ruptured liquid nitrogen line at Gainesville’s Foundation Food Group plant, five were Latino; 11 more people were injured. A 3-year-old child lost both parents in the accident, according to Arturo Corso, a local lawyer who has worked with families from the plant.
The accident left a punctuating sort of pain in Gainesville, a city of 43,000 that is about 40 percent Latino, underscoring the illness and economic hardship that have been ravaging the work force in Georgia’s best-known chicken town as a result of the coronavirus.
In much the same way some of Gainesville’s undocumented workers have feared getting coronavirus treatment or testing in recent months, some of the 130 workers evacuated from the plant on Thursday ducked out of the official rendezvous point before undergoing medical checks because they feared that being noticed by authorities might lead to their deportation, according to Jennifer McCall, a local immigration lawyer.
That is the way of things in Gainesville, a city about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta where a post-World War II boom in the chicken business has been powered in recent decades by waves of immigrants. “It’s terrifying,” said Maria del Rosario Palacios, a local organizer. “Our folks are completely scared about whether they can go to the hospital to get checked out. They say, ‘I will have to give my name when I’m working under another name.'”
According to a company spokesman, Thursday’s accident was the result of a ruptured line carrying liquid nitrogen, a substance often used to chill or freeze processed chicken that when released can make air unbreathable. It occurred a little after 10 a.m., sending dozens of frightened and confused workers into the parking lot. One witness told an Atlanta TV station that he saw workers run out of the plant gasping for air, with two of them collapsing in the grass.
In a nearby trailer park, Juana Paloblanco, 54, heard the wail of sirens from rushing emergency vehicles on Thursday morning. A Spanish-language text appeared on her smartphone: “Stay inside of your trailer or stay away from the area of Memorial Park,” it said, warning of contaminants in the air.
“I was pretty scared,” she said.
Georgia is the nation’s top chicken producer, churning out more than 30 million pounds of chicken and seven million eggs every day, according to the state’s poultry federation.
The grueling, low-paying jobs are often eschewed by Americans, and large numbers of Latin American immigrants began settling in Gainesville in the 1990s to take up the work. Since then, they and their children have changed the face of the city. Gainesville’s Latino population has doubled since 2000. And nearly 12 percent of the city’s residents are in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Center, one of the largest proportions in any metropolitan area.
They don rubber boots and smocks and earn their livings in the plants. They relax and shop on a stretch of Atlanta highway that can feel closer to Michoacan than Macon, with tiendas and restaurants offering hyper-regionalized tastes of home.
Strains of welcome and rejection run concurrently among the city’s non-Latino population. For years, the city’s pretty downtown, with its old square organized around a monument to the Confederate dead, has hosted a jubilant Latino festival.
Downtown also features a small park celebrating the city’s poultry industry, with a small statue of a chicken on a two-story-high pedestal. A plaque honors the region’s midcentury poultry industry leaders who did for the chicken industry “what Henry Ford had done for automobile manufacturing.”
On Friday morning, a nearby digital billboard flashed an advertisement from the Wayne Farms chicken company, with a photo of a smiling female worker in a smock and a hairnet. “WE ARE THE FRONT LINE FOR FEEDING THE WORLD,” it said.
The hosts of a local English-language radio talk show spoke of their prayers for the families of the dead and injured.
At the same time, the lack of legal status has made Gainesville’s immigrant work force vulnerable to deportation. Hall County, a Republican stronghold where Donald J. Trump won 70 percent of the vote last year, participates in a controversial immigration enforcement program that enlists and trains local law enforcement to identify undocumented people who were booked into jails.
Under the program, the county routinely transfers those people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after booking them for infractions like driving without a license or committing a traffic infraction, according to community advocates. More than 100 people were deported under the program last year, a number that went up significantly after Mr. Trump took office.
Critics say that immigrants are also vulnerable to exploitation at work.
“The Gainesville poultry industry preys on immigrant labor, recruiting undocumented workers and refugees to work in some of the most dangerous conditions of any sector in the economy,” said John Fossum, a researcher at the University of Texas who has studied the industry. “It is an industrywide problem but particularly acute in Gainesville.”
Thursday’s accident is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is no stranger to the plant. The Foundation Food Group facility was fined more than $140,000 for safety violations in 2015 and 2016, records show. The next year, two employees had multiple fingers amputated after they were caught in machinery. More fines were levied in 2019. The plant changed ownership in 2020.
Then came the coronavirus. As elsewhere in the country, after being deemed essential by the federal government, poultry plants have striven to keep production at normal, pre-pandemic levels. In May 2020, when Covid-19 was rampaging through the poultry facilities, 56 percent of those who got sick were Latino workers, and Hall County had twice the infection rate of neighboring Gwinnett County.
The Gainesville plants have not consistently provided adequate protective gear or ensured other safety measures are in place to protect the workers, according to community leaders. Ms. Palacios, the organizer, said she regularly supplied disposable masks to workers.
“We have a high rate of Covid, and that plant is a plant where a lot of our folks have been getting sick,” she said. She said her mother caught Covid-19 at a chicken plant a few months ago from a man who had been coming to work visibly sick. The man later died. Ms. Palacios said her mother had a stroke while she was sick.
Foundation Food Group said in a statement that it followed federal guidelines for sending home any employees who test positive for the virus, providing up to two weeks paid sick leave, and that it had not been made aware of any coronavirus-related deaths at its facilities.
“The Foundation Food Group policy highly recommends and encourages employees to wear masks,” which are provided by the company, the statement said.
Responding to Thursday’s accident, Jerry Wilson, the company’s president and chief executive, said it was reaching out to families of the affected workers. “Foundation Food Group is working diligently with governmental authorities in determining the cause of the accident,” he said.
As of late Friday morning, Ms. Palacios said, she had spoken with 11 workers at the Foundation plant. A number of them were complaining of headaches. She was trying, she said, to convince them to get over their fears and go to a hospital.
Vanessa Sarazua, the founder and executive director of Hispanic Alliance GA, a support group, opened the group’s strip-mall storefront and directed a small group of volunteers to help both those who had somehow been affected by the accident — and might need help with burials, psychiatric care or rent — and others who were simply hungry.
The latter have been growing in number, Ms. Sarazua said, because of the lack of work during the pandemic. Many other families have relied on food handouts because they were not guaranteed sick leave by their employers during quarantine and had to go without their salaries when they fell ill.
A little after 10 a.m., a despondent family came in, including a woman whose sister was killed at the plant. Her face was grim and she held a phone to her ear as she trudged silently into Ms. Sarazua’s office.
But throughout much of the city, work simply went on as usual. In front of La Flor de Jalisco #2, a popular supermarket, Alberto Ramirez, 54, stood with a large contingent of day workers. He said he was pained by the tragedy at the chicken plant.
“People are going to be a lot more afraid to go to work in those places now,” he said.
But he doubted if anyone would stay away. “We’ve got bills,” he said. “We’ve got the rent. We’ve got families to support.”
Richard Fausset reported from Gainesville, and Miriam Jordan from Los Angeles.