Siler City's Mountaire Farms, N.C. meat-processing plants adjusting to life with COVID-19

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SILER CITY — Multiple media reports Wednesday said Mountaire Farms, a poultry-processing company that has a plant in Siler City, had 20 cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in its North Carolina facilities.

That included 11 in the Siler City plant, Chatham County’s second largest employer behind Chatham County Schools. The 1,580 employees at the plant have become a popular topic of news coverage in recent days, and Mark Reif is ready to answer questions about it.

“We’re absolutely not firing anybody,” Reif told the News + Record — in a no-uncertain-terms tone of voice — Wednesday. “It’s out of their control, and we empathize with that. We do want to pay them if they’re out. They do not have to bring back a doctor’s note, that requirement’s been dropped.”

Food-processing plants have become a focus at the state level, with the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDACS) putting out a joint press release Tuesday addressing the state’s response to these plants.

“Agriculture and agribusinesses are on the front lines of this crisis just like hospital workers, first responders, grocery store staff, truck drivers and many more. Their work is different, but every bit as critically important,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in the release. “We are in contact with the companies, public health officials and our federal inspection partners. The companies are working to implement recommendations of the CDC and state public health and local officials to keep these facilities operating and producing a stable supply of safe and nutritious food.”

The press release stated that five food-processing plants had seen outbreaks — defined as two or more positive cases — located in Bladen, Duplin, Lee, Robeson and Chatham counties.

On Thursday, COVID-19 testing for Mountaire employees and their families showing COVID-19 symptoms was offered for free. The testing will continue on Friday.

“The Health Department has offered to bring testing to our facility, and we are complying,” company President Phillip Pylar said in a Wednesday press release. “However, they are bringing a limited supply of tests, and only those employees and their family members with symptoms will be tested. The challenge for us as a company is trying to work through standards for testing that differ from state to state rather than using a nationwide standard and process.”

The company has come under fire from local groups and been the subject of reports from media about sick pay, workers’ status if they test positive and contract workers. Reif addressed all three in Wednesday’s interview.

“If somebody doesn’t feel well or doesn’t want to come in, that’s fine,” he said. “We will cover them. And we’ve told them they will not lose their job at all, just come on back when they’re ready. If somebody actually does develop a case of the virus, we’ll extend that time for them with pay.”

He added that the company would “make the contract workers our permanent employees today” if those workers requested.

Chatham County Public Health Director Layton Long said the county was working with Mountaire to “implement response measures in accordance with guidance developed” by state officials.

“These efforts are ongoing, and we remain committed to doing what we can, in partnership with many other stakeholders, to protect the health and safety of workers,” Long said. “To protect privacy, we are limited in details we can share about cases of COVID-19, including the number cases by potentially-identifying characteristics like employer, geography and health status.”

Reif said the plant is continuing to operate and doesn’t have plans to stop processing.

“Our main concern is for our employees, so we’ve done everything,” he said. “We’ve done the most that we know how to do, including asking the health department if there’s anything else we can do. We think we’ve met the responsibility of doing everything we can to help our employees, but if something else is made known to us, we’ll do that too.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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  • Abenitez

    I have family members that work there at chicken plant. It was announced on Monday the 20th that there are over 400 employees infected with the virus but they are not this disclosing any information to the public. Why isn't the plant closed!?

    Thursday, April 23, 2020 Report this