GAINESVILLE, Ga. – The morning after a nitrogen leak at a chicken factory killed six people in the self-proclaimed poultry capital of the world, nearly all members of the large Latino community quelled their grief and fear and did what they came to do in Gainesville.
They woke up before sunrise on Friday and went to work.
On Catalina Drive, a neat street with vinyl-sided houses near the scene of the accident on Thursday, workers drove out of the driveway in dusty vans or drove in small limos with antiviral masks around their chins to the plants.
Up on the Atlanta freeway, other workers from the armada of local taxis have been taken to the chicken factories – with names like Taxi Quetzal, Taxi Solano, and Fiesta Cab – which is a crucial workaround for the many undocumented immigrants who don’t want to take risks has been run over and possibly deported.
18-year-old Nina Baca opened her door shortly after sunrise. The habitual stench of the plants spoiled the crisp and cloudless January morning. Ms. Baca had been working on the night shift near the accident site on Thursday. Everything was as usual except for the beginning, she said.
“We only gathered to pray for the people who have lost their families,” said Ms. Baca.
Of the six people killed Thursday by the ruptured liquid nitrogen pipe at the Gainesville Foundation Food Group’s facility, five were Latino; 11 other people were injured. According to Arturo Corso, a local lawyer who has worked with families from the plant, a 3-year-old child lost both parents in the accident.
The accident left painful pain in Gainesville, a town of 43,000 people who are 40 percent Latinos. This underscores the illness and economic hardship that has plagued the workforce in Georgia’s most famous chicken town as a result of the coronavirus.
Similarly, some of the undocumented workers in Gainesville have feared receiving coronavirus treatment or testing for the past few months. Some of the 130 workers evacuated from the plant on Thursday withdrew from the official meeting point before undergoing medical exams because they feared it would be noticed, authorities could lead to their deportation, according to Jennifer McCall, an immigration attorney .
This is what it looks like in Gainesville, a city about 90 km northeast of Atlanta, where a post-WWII chicken business boom has been sparked by waves of immigration over the past few decades. “It’s terrifying,” said Maria del Rosario Palacios, a local organizer. “Our people are very afraid that they can go to the hospital for an examination. They say, “I have to give my name if I work under another name.”
According to a company spokesman, Thursday’s accident was the result of a ruptured pipe containing liquid nitrogen, a substance often used to cool or freeze processed chicken that if released can make air in breathable. It happened just after 10 a.m. and sent dozens of scared and confused workers into the parking lot. A witness told an Atlanta television station that he saw workers run out of the facility gasping for breath, two of whom collapsed on the grass.
In a nearby trailer park, 54-year-old Juana Paloblanco heard sirens wail from roaring emergency vehicles on Thursday morning. A Spanish-language text appeared on her smartphone: “Stay in your trailer or stay out of the Memorial Park area,” he warned of air pollution.
“I was pretty scared,” she said.
Georgia is the largest chicken producer in the country, according to the state poultry association, producing more than 30 million pounds of chicken and seven million eggs every day.
The grueling, badly paid jobs are often shunned by Americans, and large numbers of Latin American immigrants began settling in Gainesville to take up work in the 1990s. Since then, she and her children have changed the face of the city. The Latino population in Gainesville has doubled since 2000 According to the Pew Research Center, one of the largest proportions in any metropolitan area, nearly 12 percent of the city’s residents are in the country illegally.
They put on rubber boots and smocks and earn their living in the plants. You relax and shop on a stretch of the Atlanta freeway that can feel closer to Michoacan than Macon. Tiendas and restaurants offer a national taste of home.
The city’s non-Latino population is greeted and rejected at the same time. A jubilant Latino festival has been held for years in the pretty inner city of the city with its old square, which is arranged around a memorial to the Confederate dead.
There is also a small park in the city center that celebrates the city’s poultry industry, with a small statue of a chicken on a two-story plinth. A plaque honors mid-century poultry industry leaders who “did what Henry Ford did to make automobiles” for the chicken industry.
On Friday morning, a nearby digital billboard showed an advertisement from Wayne Farms’ chicken farm with a photo of a smiling worker in a smock and a hairnet. “We are the front line to feed the world,” it said.
The hosts of a local English language radio talk show shared their prayers for the families of the dead and injured.
At the same time, Gainesville’s lack of legal status has made migrant workers vulnerable to deportation. Hall County, a Republican stronghold, where Donald J. Trump received 70 percent of the vote last year, is participating in a controversial immigration enforcement program that recruits and trains local law enforcement agencies to identify undocumented people, who have been sent to prisons.
As part of the program, the county routinely transfers these individuals to immigration and customs after booking them for violations such as driving without a license or committing a traffic violation. More than 100 people were deported as part of the program last year, a number that has increased significantly since Mr. Trump took office.
Critics say immigrants are also vulnerable to exploitation at work.
“The Gainesville poultry industry hunts immigrants and recruits undocumented workers and refugees to work in the most dangerous conditions of any economic sector,” said John Fossum, a researcher at the University of Texas who has studied the industry. “It’s an industry problem, but it’s particularly acute in Gainesville.”
Thursday’s accident is under investigation from the health and safety authority, which is not alien to the system. The Foundation Food Group’s facility was fined more than $ 140,000 for security breaches in 2015 and 2016. The next year, two employees had multiple fingers amputated after being trapped in machines. Further fines were levied in 2019. The system changed hands in 2020.
Then came the coronavirus. Like everywhere in the country, poultry factories have made efforts to keep production at normal pre-pandemic levels, now that this was deemed essential by the federal government. In May 2020, when Covid-19 raged through the poultry factories, 56 percent of the 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 equipment or ensured that other safety measures are in place to protect 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 this plant is a plant that many of our people got sick in,” she said. She said her mother caught Covid-19 a few months ago in a chicken factory from a man who had come to work visibly sick. The man later died. Ms. Palacios said her mother had a stroke while she was sick.
The Foundation Food Group said in a statement that it followed federal guidelines to send home employees who tested positive for the virus for up to two weeks of paid sick leave, and that they were at their facilities Coronavirus-related deaths had not been made aware.
“The Foundation Food Group’s guidelines strongly recommend and encourage employees to wear masks,” the company’s statement said.
In response to Thursday’s accident, Jerry Wilson, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said he was reaching out to families of the workers involved. “The Foundation Food Group is working diligently with government agencies to determine the cause of the accident,” he said.
By late Friday morning, Ms. Palacios said she had spoken to 11 workers at the foundation’s plant. Some of them complained of headaches. She tried to convince them to overcome 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 mall and directed a small group of volunteers to help both those who were somehow affected by the accident – and may need help with funerals, psychiatric care or rent – and others who were just hungry.
The latter have increased in number, Ms. Sarazua said, because no work was done during the pandemic. Many other families have relied on food because their employers did not guarantee them sick leave during the quarantine and they had to forego their salaries in the event of illness.
A desperate family walked in just after 10 a.m., including a woman whose sister was killed in the factory. Her face was grim and she was holding a phone to her ear as she trudged silently into Ms. Sarazua’s office.
But in large parts of the city they just worked as usual. In front of La Flor de Jalisco No. 2, a popular supermarket, stood 54-year-old Alberto Ramirez with a large contingent of day laborers. He said the tragedy at the chicken factory tormented him.
“People will be much more afraid to go to work in these places now,” he said.
But he doubted anyone would stay away. “We have bills,” he said. “We have the rent. We have to support families. “
Richard Fausset reported from Gainesville and Miriam Jordan from Los Angeles.