In one of the most dangerous workplaces in West Virginia, a poultry giant has profited from immigrant labor for decades

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On a rainy afternoon in 2020, Pilgrim’s Pride’s West Virginia chicken factory was dirty.

The slaughterhouse has sharp metal hooks, deboning knives and conveyor belts. The machinery butchers over a million live birds every week and is constantly covered with animal grime.

That day, dozens of sanitation workers, many of them Hispanic and many of them immigrants, were washing the machines in the plant owned by Hardy County’s largest employer. A Puerto Rican man was kneeling to clean a conveyor belt when it unexpectedly turned on.

The machine latched on to his work jacket, and pulled. The man cried out in agony.

“It was really bad, something ugly,” said Marco, a man from Mexico also cleaning the slaughterhouse that day.

As he walked past an office away from the line, Marco got a clear look at what remained underneath bloody towels.

“The arm was left hanging by the skin,” he said.

As gruesome as the scene was, Marco had seen plenty of similar injuries take place inside Pilgrim’s Moorefield factory, built along a fork of the Potomac River’s South Branch. He knew what could happen inside the plant.

Over the past 30 years, he and thousands of others who’ve left their homelands have come to Moorefield to work at West Virginia’s only industrial poultry plant. Often fleeing poverty or violence, many have immigrated from other countries, and others have come from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico.

Seeking safety and a better life, they’ve often faced unsafe working conditions.

Throughout the last decade, Pilgrim’s Moorefield plant has been one of the most dangerous non-coal industrial workplaces in West Virginia.

From 2015 to late 2023, 12 factory employees had workplace injuries that led to amputations or overnight hospitalizations, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. During that period, the only West Virginia workplace with more severe injuries was a tin mill in Weirton, which closed indefinitely in April.

Just months before the man’s arm was nearly yanked off, a different plant employee’s hand crossed the path of an active circular saw. The injury — one that federal inspectors determined was caused by plant managers not providing employees with necessary protective equipment around heavy machinery — cost Pilgrim’s about $52,000 in fines and the employee parts of an index finger and a thumb.

Poultry production is known for a high rate of worker injuries. But Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff, said the number of severe injuries at Pilgrim’s Moorefield plant was notable.

“This is a red flag on safety conditions in the plant,” Berkowitz said, adding that these types of serious accidents are often indicative of larger health and safety problems within a workplace.

The federal data doesn’t include plenty of other hospital trips needed for workers at the plant. In 2022 and 2023, local paramedics responded to calls to the Moorefield factory 138 times — about once every five days — according to the Hardy County Emergency Ambulance Authority.

Those records reveal additional worker injuries that aren’t included in the OSHA list, including someone who was struck in the face with a metal bar, someone whose leg got caught and crushed between two machines and someone who was thrown off a floor jack onto his head.

David Workman, the Hardy County Commission president, said the injury data illustrate a concerning situation for people who already face struggles in the U.S. and West Virginia.

“They’re working around knives and big equipment, automated equipment,” he said. “Maybe some of the language barrier is a contributor to that.”

“Once in a while, you will see people passing out or cutting themselves,” said María, a woman from Peru who worked at Pilgrim’s for a decade and retired after injuring her leg. María requested to be identified only by her first name. “They would come with wheelchairs and take them to the health clinic.”

And in a state in which 91% of residents are white, a disproportionate amount of the danger is shouldered by the plant’s large immigrant workforce, a Mountain State Spotlight investigation found.

Outside the plant, some Moorefield residents have tried to welcome newcomers. But inside, most of the current and former immigrant workers Mountain State Spotlight spoke with said they worried about their safety or had experienced a work-related injury or illness. The names of undocumented workers in this story, like Marco, have been changed because of deportation fears.

Through interpreters, some immigrant workers said they enjoyed their jobs at the plant and the high pay relative to other Hardy County jobs. But many others said supervisors often failed to teach them how to safely navigate the plant, ignored them when they pointed out health threats and placed them in jobs where injuries are common.

Because Moorefield doesn’t have many other jobs for people who don’t speak English, newcomers said some managers have leveraged the lack of opportunities or employees’ immigration status to keep them working.

Mountain State Spotlight found people who’ve had these concerns since Pilgrim’s Pride took over the plant in the early 2000s — regardless of where they’re from and whether they’ve worked for the company directly or for a contractor. It’s one of the reasons why different ethnic groups have cycled in and out of Moorefield over the past 30 years.

Both local and corporate officials for Pilgrim’s Pride, an arm of the largest poultry producer in the world, did not answer calls and voicemails asking for interviews. They didn’t answer a letter with over a dozen questions related to this story.

A recent lawsuit against major American poultry corporations, including Pilgrim’s Pride, alleged the companies recruited vulnerable immigrant workers to staff some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. In response, Pilgrim’s denied these allegations and said the workers’ lawyers were selectively pulling unflattering quotes from various reports and people.

When Marco came to the U.S. as a teenager, he thought Moorefield would be a safe place where he and his loved ones could exist in peace. That’s something he never had in Mexico.

But when he was inside Pilgrim’s plant, he remembers constantly trying to protect himself and his coworkers from leaving the factory in an ambulance, like when supervisors asked his team to climb up 20-foot ladders to clean tall machines.

“You’re gonna fall. You’re gonna die,” Marco recalled telling other workers. “They are going to replace you, but your family is not going to replace you.”

Welcome to Moorefield

The town of Moorefield, a 2,800-person bit of flatland between two stretches of the Allegheny Mountains, is surrounded in every direction by chicken houses that can stretch as long as two football fields. Drivers who come from Petersburg are greeted by tall concrete grain silos holding chicken feed — where Pilgrim’s stores food for its future food — and might pass a freight hauler with a Kroger logo leaving the town packed with poultry.

Chicken processing has been at the heart of Moorefield’s identity for 80 years. In 1944, the Virginia-based Rockingham Poultry Marketing Collective opened the town’s poultry slaughterhouse, now known as the fresh plant. On its first day, the plant’s 79 employees processed 3,000 chickens, according to the Moorefield Examiner.

About a decade later, Pierce Pre-Cooked Foods opened another plant right next door — known by locals as the cook plant. There, workers turned raw chicken parts into foods like frozen chicken nuggets and Wing Dings, a breaded chicken wing developed in Moorefield.

As other industries have done throughout U.S. history, poultry processors eventually turned to immigrants for workers — like the coal industry did in its early days in West Virginia. In the 1990s, plants across the country began recruiting Hispanic workers to staff their production lines. Labor rights advocates say the industry took this step to maintain low wages and prevent union organizing.

Moorefield’s slaughterhouse followed the industry trend. By 1990, its new owner, WLR Foods, wanted to expand the factory by 800 jobs. But the company struggled to find workers, according to a Moorefield Examiner article from that year.

To solve that problem, WLR looked outside of West Virginia. William Ours, a former plant supervisor, said it was around 1992 — as the expansion moved forward — when he remembers Hispanic immigrants first working alongside longtime Moorefield residents.

“Production could be increased, and more departments could grow to meet orders,” he said. “So you needed more people.”

By 2003, Pilgrim’s Pride, a company that produces nearly one in six U.S. chickens, had acquired both operations. From then on, it’s owned, from egg to plastic package, most of Moorefield’s chicken.

That same year, Marco’s sister, Naomi, was told by a cousin that there were jobs in Moorefield. As a teenager, she left Mexico and came to Hardy County as an undocumented immigrant. Within a week of arriving in town, Pilgrim’s Pride hired her to work on one of the slaughterhouse’s production lines.

The job was difficult. When Naomi told her line managers that she needed to use the bathroom, she said they would respond by saying “one moment” over and over for hours. If Naomi ignored them and left the line, she said a manager would sometimes bang on the stall, grab her arm once she came out and yank her back to her work station.

Once, Naomi was working on a production line when someone spilled a large container of ammonia — a chemical that high exposure to can cause severe lung damage. When the smell became overwhelming, Naomi said her supervisors evacuated white workers first and kept her and two other Hispanic women working by the tanks for another 20 minutes.

“They said they had to move those who had been at the company the longest,” she said. “But it was evident that it was dangerous for everyone, not just the Americans.”

Hector, also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, worked at the plant during this era as well. Pilgrim’s had Hector slice chicken meat off bones, a job in which infections, cuts and carpal tunnel syndrome are common.

Most of his supervisors only spoke English; as a recent immigrant, Hector often didn’t know what they were asking of him.

He did, however, understand some of the scoldings he and others received.

“They said ‘why don’t you understand’ and ‘what are you doing here if you don’t speak English,’” Hector said.

In the early to mid-2000s, Naomi remembers hundreds of Hispanic immigrants, many of them undocumented, working at the plant.

That changed in April 2008, when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the plant and arrested employees, including Hector. The federal government said just over 100 Moorefield workers were detained.

ICE separated him from his then-girlfriend, who he later married.

“I felt awful,” Hector said. “She was here, so I left her here.”

New employment pathways

The couple reunited in Mexico and returned to Moorefield within a year. Once they were back, Hector was soon working back in the plant.

He was no longer employed directly by Pilgrim’s Pride, as he had been prior to 2008. He and other former workers said the company started hiring refugees from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Myanmar who were resettled elsewhere in the country — people who were legally authorized to work in the U.S.

This time, Hector said he and others who lacked this legal authorization were pushed toward two independent companies that contracted with the plant: Quality, Service, Integrity and Packers Sanitation Services Incorporated, often referred to by their acronyms QSI and PSSI. Both employ factory sanitation workers across the U.S.

Federal OSHA data shows that both companies staffed workers in Pilgrim’s Moorefield factory in the 2010s. Some of those workers during this time were undocumented, according to paystubs reviewed by Mountain State Spotlight.

Pilgrim’s corporate office says it’s accountable for the well-being of contract company employees. In its corporate sustainability strategy, the company wrote that “we take our responsibility for their health and safety seriously.”

The sanitation companies have publicly said one of their purposes is to protect companies from being associated with some of the plant’s most dangerous jobs. PSSI once said its partnership with food processing factories could “take the liability and risk off your facility’s record,” and QSI’s website says it helps the companies create consistent sanitation processes to protect their brands.

Berkowitz, the former OSHA top official, studies the relationship between chicken producers, including Pilgrim’s, and their independent contractors. She said it’s common for poultry companies to outsource some of the most dangerous jobs in the plant to groups like PSSI and QSI.

“Pilgrim’s is telling them exactly what to do,” she said.

In emailed statements, spokespeople for PSSI and QSI said they are committed to only hiring people who are authorized to work in the U.S.

“QSI protects the American dream by providing career opportunities to those who are often overlooked, who need second chances, or who just need an opportunity to show their value,” wrote Gene Boulware, the company’s director for corporate and community relations.

Hector worked stints with both companies. While people came and went frequently, he said the majority of his coworkers were immigrants.

And the work remained dangerous. One day, shortly after putting on gloves to start a shift, Hector felt an itch on the top of his left hand. At first, he ignored it. But after about 30 minutes, the sensation became overwhelming.

“As I was taking my white one off, I saw my skin was sticking to it,” Hector said as he pointed to a scar just between his fingers and wrist. “Everything was red.”

His managers had him put his hand in cold water and rushed him to the hospital. Later, Hector learned the white glove PSSI provided him was contaminated with one of dozens of dangerous chemicals used to wash poultry processing machines.

In its statement, PSSI said employees spend their first three weeks in training about potential hazards, safety protocols and how to handle chemicals.

“We have made significant safety investments in this area and have reduced our OSHA recordable injury rate by half over the last six years,” the company wrote.

It was while working for QSI when Marco witnessed the Puerto Rican man’s arm nearly get chopped off and was asked to climb up tall machines.

Despite the near amputation being documented in federal safety records, Boulware wrote that the company had no direct knowledge of the incident and did not clarify when provided with the OSHA record. He said QSI wasn’t familiar with any job tasks that would require climbing and noted that the company has training videos in six different languages.

Marco recalled another shift when a piece of machinery crushed a worker’s hand. After doctors had surgically attached a metal implant to the man’s finger bone, Marco said his supervisors asked him to drive the man to his physical therapy appointments.

Then there were all the chemicals he handled. While working with the dry ones, Marco said it was nearly impossible not to breathe them in, which sometimes resulted in chest pain. He worked with liquid ones as well, despite feeling like he wasn’t properly trained on how to use them.

One of the liquid solutions, a cleaner he and his coworkers had nicknamed “devil’s blood” stuck out to him years later.

“If it touches your skin, it starts to like eat it up.” Marco said, recounting times drops of the black liquid fell on his hands.

Angela Stuesse, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill anthropology professor who has studied the relationship between poultry plants and their workers for decades, said this type of labor control is seen in chicken factories across the country.

While the poultry companies aren’t trying to create an environment where people get sick and injured frequently, she said their main focus is on generating money for their shareholders. And one of the most effective ways of keeping costs low is to employ people with few other options.

“It’s about ensuring that the most profitable, exploitable workforce is made available,” Stuesse said.

Take what happened in 2020, when COVID-19 spread through the Moorefield plant’s workforce and the meat and poultry industries more broadly.

Pilgrim’s Pride was desperate for workers. The plant turned to Quintanilla Poultry, a South Carolina-based company that hired dozens of Hardy County undocumented workers to keep the production process running.

Moorefield immigrants who worked for Quintanilla said they were tasked with similar responsibilities to people directly employed by Pilgrim’s Pride. Unlike other production workers, its former employees said they were never offered health insurance. But the new infectious disease health risks added to the dangers immigrants already faced.

Naomi, Marco’s sister who came to Moorefield in 2003, said she was one of the immigrants Quintanilla hired in 2020. She said supervisors instructed employees to come in to work even if they had COVID-19 symptoms. When Naomi tested positive for the virus, she said a company manager told her to hide the test results from any Pilgrim’s officials.

Juan Quintanilla, the owner of Quintanilla Poultry, said in March that he was in the process of shutting down his company and declined to answer further questions.

A tenuous future

Today, dozens of semi-trucks carrying crates full of live chickens drive daily down Main Street lined with Moorefield’s historic homes and glass-paneled public high school. Depending on the time and day, the factory emits a smell that resembles deep-fried chicken wings, burning rubber or breaded manure.

When the trucks reach the center of town, they turn into one of the private roads that criss-cross the Pilgrim’s Pride’s complex, passing by the buildings where chicken pieces are churned out 24 hours a day.

Pilgrim’s Pride’s Moorefield immigrant workforce and relationship to contract companies has been changing once again.

In 2022 and 2023, the plant fired many undocumented immigrant workers — including Hector, Marco and Naomi. It happened around the same time the chicken giant’s COVID-19-related labor shortages were improving in its U.S. factories, according to a corporate earnings report.

Boulware, the QSI spokesperson, said his company stopped contracting in Moorefield in 2023. When that happened, PSSI took over sanitation responsibilities for both the slaughterhouse and the prepared foods plant, according to the company’s local hiring coordinator Kayla Stump.

Additionally, many of the people from Southeast Asia and East Africa who worked at the plant in the 2010s have left West Virginia.

Than Htay Maung and his family left Myanmar for the U.S. after the government prevented his wife, a journalist, from reporting freely. Shortly after his divorce, a family friend told him about a job opportunity in Moorefield.

Than Htay Maung, a Burmese asylum seeker who works at Pilgrim’s Pride, stands alongside his paintings in his home. Photo by Roger May.

Now, a decade into working at Pilgrim’s Pride slaughterhouse, Htay Maung has watched the Burmese community in Hardy County decline from hundreds of people in the early 2010s to just a handful today.

“Some of them got married,” Htay Muong said in Burmese. “Some of them moved to a different place to work. Some of them just found a better job elsewhere.”

The poultry work pays better than other jobs in West Virginia for non-English speakers, he said. And it hasn’t interfered with his biggest passion, painting — at least not yet.

After years of pulling and snipping chickens apart, he’s experiencing intense pain from his forearms to his fingers.

When Htay Muong tells his supervisors about his arms, he says they’ve given him Biofreeze cream to rub on his hands. For the most part, he said he keeps his pain to himself.

Htay Muong worries that he may soon not be able to hold a paint brush.

“If I can’t use my hands, I’ll use my feet and my tongue,” he said.

Now, Pilgrim’s is staffing the Moorefield plant with many from Caribbean countries who are seeking or have received asylum status. In February, John Tenerus, a Haitian immigrant, estimated that between 300 and 400 people from his home country now work at the factory.

He said his experience as a Pilgrim’s prepared foods employee, a job he’s had for about a year, had been largely uneventful so far.

“I think it’s okay,” he said. “Not dangerous.”

In over two decades in Moorefield, Naomi has seen many groups of immigrants come to the plant with high hopes and leave with scars and disappointment.

While she no longer works there, she fears the new group of Haitian workers, many of whom are Black, could eventually experience similar problems to the ones she faced.

“In my opinion, if we were discriminated against, then people from Haiti are even more,” Naomi said.

Regardless of where workers come from, Marco expects the plant to continue employing people far from their homelands, like himself, to feed the rest of the country. And so does Pilgrim’s.

In recent reports to shareholders, the chicken giant says that its profits could be harmed by new immigration legislation or enforcement that could disrupt production or bring fines.

“No assurances can be given that enforcement efforts by governmental authorities will not disrupt a portion of our workforce or operations at one or more facilities, thereby negatively impacting our business,” the company wrote in an annual report earlier this year.

Marco just hopes he and his wife can afford to keep their children in school and out of the plant. He wants them to be able to work somewhere far away from any deboners or “devil’s blood.”

“That’s what I tell my children,” he said. “To study as much as possible. And that’s why we keep looking for jobs.”

Source: Cumberland Times-News