WILKESBORO — Imagine yourself, if you will, working a shift in James’ boots for a second.
He’s employed at Tyson Foods, a good but not great job. Steady pay, steady hours in an industry deemed essential. But it’s a grind; Tyson is a chicken-processing operation, Wilkes County’s largest employer.
But like other industrial meat-packing facilities across the nation, Tyson has a problem. COVID-19 is running wild inside the complex. Cases have spiked over the past several days to the point where widespread testing has finally been ordered.
So here’s the dilemma for James and nearly 1,000 of his co-workers: Clock in, feed the family and risk infection, sickness and death or stay home, remain safe but lose his paycheck and any shot at unemployment benefits.
“The situation has gotten so much worse,” James said. “It’s infested now. … We’re between a rock and hard place. You either go to work or you don’t have any money. You can’t get unemployment because you’re not laid off.”
The outbreak at Tyson has been reflected in daily reports of COVID-19 for more than a week now.
As of April 23, Wilkes County was reporting just 13 positive cases. By Tuesday afternoon, the number had increased more than 10 times to 144.
The damage isn’t limited to Wilkes, either. Neighboring and surrounding counties have seen spikes, too, and commuting workers — and those who’ve come in close contact with them — have tested positive for coronavirus.
In Forsyth County, some 127 cases have been added to public tallies since April 27, a majority attributable in some way to the outbreak at the Tyson plant.
As worrisome as that is for public health and company officials, it’s far grimmer for hourly workers who depend on that next check to pay rent and keep the lights on.
“It’s not safe,” James said. “They tell us ‘Wear your mask you’ll be OK. You’re more likely to get it at the grocery store than here.’ I feel like they’re treating us as if we’re expendable.”
(Obviously, James isn’t the man’s real name. Tyson could well come down on him — hard — for speaking his mind.)
“They make us sign all kinds of papers,” he said.
I imagine that sort of arrangement pre-dates COVID-19 and stems from concerns about infiltration by animal-rights and/or anti-meat groups.
To be fair, the company has taken measures to keep its people relatively safe. Derek Burleson, a Tyson public-relations manager, outlined them in email Tuesday afternoon.
“Tyson is committed to protecting its team members, who are going above and beyond, to help us maintain a healthy and stable food supply for the nation,” he wrote.
Specific measures include: providing onset testing, taking workers’ temperature with 150 walk-through infrared scanners in some plants, encouraging social distancing and providing masks, face shields and hand-sanitizer.
“We are educating team members on best practices on how to stay safe, both at work at and at home, and are deploying these instructions in more than 15 languages,” Burleson wrote.
Still, despite stepped-up safety measures, it’s also fair to say that front-line workers remain wary.
“They’ve put up plexiglas, but that’s not stopping a virus,” James said. “We’re still breathing the same air and (people) are still standing right next to you.”
Workers from the Wilkes County Health Department went Monday to three shifts at the Tyson complex to collect samples from 200 workers for testing.
The remainder of the plant’s workers will be tested today through Saturday by Matrix Medical, a company hired by Tyson.
John Yates, the Wilkes County manager, noted that his county is working to contain two active outbreaks — one at Tyson and another in the Wilkes Health and Rehabilitation Center. “Eighteen percent of the cases are community spread and 82 percent have been from close contact,” he said.
Roughly translated, that means officials have been able to identify the carrier through contact tracing 82 percent of the time. School nurses, Yates said, have been enlisted to help contact tracing.
“Tyson has been a great partner for us for many years,” Yates said. “We want to see them beat this thing as well as keeping our residents safe.”
Wishing well for the company and its workers are not mutually exclusive; it’s not an either/or situation.
But this is also true: Many chicken-plant workers aren’t blessed with a lot of options. They can’t work from a home office. Economic opportunity is limited.
“It’s a scary situation,” James said. “Don’t nobody work there but poor white people and brown people. Black people, minorities. It feels like taking advantage of the little guy.”
People have to work and provide for their families. But it’s a crying shame that workers, through no fault of their own, are feeling the stress of an impossible choice.
“I’m afraid of bringing it back to my whole family,” said James, who’s awaiting test results. “Chicken, chicken, chicken … it just doesn’t make sense.”
Gov. Roy Cooper signed Tuesday an executive order that will launch a slow reopening of the state’s economy beginning at 5 p.m. Friday.
Executive Order 138 will allow essential businesses to reopen with up to 50% of occupancy capacity, allow for outdoor social gatherings of no more than 10 people, including places of worship and protests, as long as social distancing guidelines are kept.
“We can only boost our economy when people have confidence in their safety … that they trust the process,” Cooper said.
“This is a careful and deliberate first step, guided by the data, and North Carolinians still must use caution while this virus is circulating.
“If our indicators are not in the right place, we’ll extend Phase I longer than two weeks,” Cooper said.
The order encourages cloth face coverings to be worn when outside the home and in contact with others.
Stay-at-home restrictions will remain into effect through May 22 and may be extended depending on COVID-19 trends.
“Phase 2 will only start if data and indicators are in the right place,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary.
Cooper stressed that “COVID-19 is still a serious threat to our state, and Phase 1 is designed to be a limited easing of restrictions that can boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place.”
Cooper stressed that moving forward on Phase I is not being influenced by pressure from the business community or protesters, including ReOpen NC.
“People will be able to socialize with friends as long as they are outdoors and social distancing,” Cooper said.
“We are paying attention to First Amendment rights, such as protests and worship services. These activities are allowed outdoors.”
A day after Cooper and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, praised the bipartisan passage of COVID-19 relief bills, Berger criticized Cooper’s Phase 1 step as “largely a continuation of the existing lockdown. A statewide stay-at-home order still remains in place,
“We were told ‘flattening the curve’ to prevent overloading hospitals justified a lock down. Hospitals are not overloaded, and in fact they’re laying people off,” Berger said.
“So what is the theory to support this plan — eliminate infections or just delay them?”
Despite examples of where COVID-19 cases have been spread over county lines, in particular the Tyson Foods manufacturing outbreak spilling into Forsyth County, Berger said that “over half of our counties comprise less than 10% of confirmed cases.”
“Why is a blanket, one-size-fits-all statewide order justified?
“I’m concerned that Gov. Cooper is ignoring more reasonable approaches and the experiences of the majority of states.”
Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said that “we all need to continue being careful and following all safety precautions. Those at high risk, particularly, need to be very careful.
“Still, with less than half of North Carolina counties comprising less than 10% of cases, I think a more regional approach would be better suited.”
Cooper said employers will remain encouraged to allow staff to work from home during Phase 1. The order allows people to leave their homes for commercial activity at any business that is open.
“We would rather you stay at home, but we understand we need to give a boost to our economy,” Cooper said
“We have flattened the curve and we can move through the phases safely and people will have confidence.”
Cooper has said he plans to gradually re-open the state’s economy over three phases, starting with Friday’s changes.
Phase 2 would begin at least two or three weeks after Phase 1. At that point, stay-at-home orders would be lifted, but vulnerable people would be encouraged to continue staying at home.
Phase 3 would begin four to six weeks after Phase 2. Under that change, vulnerable populations could get out more, with encouragement to continue practicing physical distancing and minimizing exposure to settings where distancing isn’t possible.
More people would be allowed in restaurants, bars, other businesses, houses of worships, and entertainment venues.
Even larger gatherings would be allowed. The restrictions on nursing homes and similar settings would continue.
Cohen acknowledged the risk of opening too soon with the potential of having to start over again with stay-at-home restrictions.
Cohen has said that before the state can start lifting restrictions, it needs to see a decreasing or sustained number of cases and a decreasing percentage of tests showing up positive for the coronavirus.
Cohen said the state also needs to see decreasing or leveling of hospitalizations, along with more testing, more employees to trace contacts among people testing positive and a reliable, 30-day supply of key personal protection items such as gowns and masks.
Outside of outbreaks at nursing homes, residential care facilities, correctional facilities and some meat-packaging facilities, there has been a leveling off of overall cases, Cohen said.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re stable,” Cohen said. “Sustain leveling is OK for North Carolina because we never had a surge … and that’s a real positive for the state.”
Winston-Salem State University received excess financial aid monies, miscalculated the amounts to return and didn’t accurately report changes in enrollment status of students receiving federal grants and loans, according to a new state audit.
The audit, conducted by the Office of the State Auditor and released Friday, included four instances of noncompliance with federal financial aid regulations during the 2018-19 fiscal year that ended last June.
Winston-Salem State concurred with the audit findings and said it has addressed the problems found.
According to the audit, Winston-Salem State:
• Incorrectly calculated how much financial aid to return to the federal government. In cases pinpointed by state auditors, the university in some instances failed to return $2,932, in other cases returned an excess of $2,556 and in still other instances returned another $679 about 80 days too late.
• Didn’t accurately report enrollment status changes to the National Student Loan Data System as required. Failure to say when students leave school or change from full-time to part-time or other status can affect a student’s eligibility for federal grants and loans.
• Failed to get updated financial aid history for students transferring to the university before awarding financial aid monies. If this information isn’t checked, students may get grants and loans they aren’t eligible to receive.
• Drew down an excess of $126,887 in financial aid money and returned $80,036 in financial aid funds between 17 and 31 days late. Federal regulations say universities can’t ask for more financial money than they immediately need to award to students and parents.
Winston-Salem State, in its response to state auditors included in the report, blamed the problems on a number of issues, including staff turnover, poor communication between the financial aid and registrar’s offices, a lack of proper training and awareness of changes in federal financial policy, a university information system that was incorrectly configured and failure to properly monitor a consultant.
In a statement to the Winston-Salem Journal this week, the university said it addressed three of the four findings before the audit was completed in March and has since worked on the fourth issue. The university also said it has “strengthened our compliance processes and implemented monitoring systems and additional checks and balances that will lessen the likelihood of issues going forward.
“Our main goals are full compliance with federal regulations and state statutes, and operational excellence. Compliance implementation goes beyond one person and one department. We have implemented systems to help ensure improved communication and positive synergy exists between such interdependencies. We have provided training to staff as appropriate, and university leadership has been empowered to course correct when needed. We are confident that we are on the right path to 100 percent compliance in future audits.
“We realize that financial aid is critical to many of our students. As such, we are working to guarantee administrative errors will not hinder or lessen the important support that our students receive.”
In 2018-19, according to the audit report, the university disbursed about $51.9 million in federal financial aid to 4,401 students.
Three Forsyth County cases might be affected by a new N.C. Supreme Court decision that says judges need to give more scrutiny to allegations of racial discrimination in jury selection, an attorney said Tuesday.
The ruling came down on Friday and involved the case of Cedric Hobbs, a Cumberland County man convicted of killing two people during an armed robbery. The court decided 6-1 that the trial judge failed to take into consideration evidence that race was a key factor in excluding black jurors.
Elizabeth Hambourger, an attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, represents Russell William Tucker and Thomas Michael Larry. Tucker is on death row based on a conviction of killing a security guard at a Winston-Salem K-Mart in 1994. Larry is on death row after being convicted of killing a Winston-Salem police officer in 1994.
Another attorney at the death penalty center represents Henry Jerome White. White is serving a life sentence after being convicted of killing a Winston-Salem man in 1996 during a robbery at an auto paint and repair shop.
All three Forsyth County men allege that race was a major reason why prosecutors excluded a large number of black jurors in their trial. Tucker and White specifically allege that Forsyth County prosecutors lifted language from a training document to provide non-racial reasons for excluding black jurors.
A U.S. Supreme Court case called Batson V. Kentucky guides how the court system deals with allegation of racial discrimination in jury selection. That decision said prosecutors are not supposed to use race in getting rid of potential jurors. Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys can use what are known as peremptory challenges, where they don’t have to give a reason to strike a particular juror. But if challenged based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a judge can ask a prosecutor if there is a non-racial reason for excluding a juror.
The problem in North Carolina is that prosecutors have never been found in appellate courts to have used race to exclude black jurors, Hambourger said. The decision in the Hobbs’ case may change that, she said.
“One of the things the court focused on was that the trial court hadn’t really given scrutiny to the reasons prosecutors gave,” she said.
Laura Brewer, the spokeswoman for the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, said state prosecutors are reviewing the decision. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill has declined to comment on pending litigation. But state attorneys have denied the allegations of racial discrimination in court papers.
The court said in its opinion that trial judges need to consider a history of disproportionate strikes in the county. According to a news release from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Cumberland County prosecutors were about 2.5 times more likely to strike potential black jurors.
The court also said judges have to compare the strikes against black jurors and the ones against white jurors. For example, even though Cumberland County prosecutors in Hobbs’ case said they had struck a black juror because that person had experience with mental health professions, they allowed white jurors who also had received mental health treatment.
Hambourger said the court made clear that prosecutors cannot just make up something that sounds reasonable.
“If it’s not true, that really suggests, particularly if there’s a pattern, that race was a reason,” she said.
Tucker and White have both argued in court papers that Forsyth County prosecutors pulled from a training document that was designed to provide non-racial reasons to exclude black jurors.
And in Larry’s case, his attorneys argue that two women, one black and one white, were called to serve as jurors. But the black woman was struck and the white woman was accepted by prosecutors. Larry’s attorneys argue that the only reason the black woman was excluded was because of race. When prosecutors were asked during litigation over the Racial Justice Act, they couldn’t come up with a race-neutral reason why the black woman in Larry’s case was dismissed.
“It’s sending the message that when prosecutors give reasons, those reasons actually have to be true,” Hambourger said.
All three cases are pending in Forsyth Superior Court.