In summary

Emails reveal Fresno County public health officials tipped off Foster Farms executives during the county’s largest-known COVID-19 workplace outbreak.

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Last December, during the biggest-known COVID-19 workplace outbreak in Fresno County, public health officials said they were investigating Foster Farms’ chicken processing plant in southeast Fresno.

But dozens of emails obtained by The Fresno Bee through a Public Records Act request show that during the outbreak at the South Cherry Avenue plant that infected hundreds, health officials tipped off company executives about a Cal/OSHA inspection, coordinated media talking points during the crisis, withheld information from the public and issued no corrective actions.

At least five people who worked at the South Cherry Avenue plant have died in connection to the virus, according to data provided by the company and Cal/OSHA. At least 22 people who worked at Foster Farms’ Fresno facilities have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 related complications to date.

Fresno County Public Health officials defended their relationships with local businesses, saying their role is to be “the eyes and ears” of the community and to help companies curb the spread of the virus. Regulation is left to more powerful agencies, like Cal/OSHA.

“What we do is quite different,” said Tom Fuller, an environmental health specialist at the Fresno County Department of Health. “We are a ministerial type of work, is the way that we approached them.”

“What we do is quite different. We are a ministerial type of work, is the way that we approached them.”

Tom Fuller, environmental health specialist at Fresno County Department of Health

Regulatory agencies like Cal/OSHA have been stretched paper-thin during the pandemic, however, and local-level health agencies have sometimes acted as a last line of defense.

In August, Merced County Health Department ordered the Foster Farms plant in Livingston to shut down following a large outbreak. A UFW lawsuit accused the company of ignoring social-distancing protocols and failing to provide workers with masks. At least nine workers have died, the lawsuit alleges. Foster Farms called the lawsuit “without merit.”

“There’s nothing ministerial about the plant shutdown, which they have the power to do,” said Jon Eisenberg, an attorney representing UFW.

City Councilmember Miguel Arias told The Bee the emails between Foster Farms and Fresno County raise serious questions about who the Fresno County Department of Public Health serves.

“I’m disgusted by the level of intentional coordination to limit information on an outbreak by one of the largest employers in our city by the county and the employer,” he said.

Fresno County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau issued a statement to The Bee:

“Since the County of Fresno declared a local emergency due to the COVID-19 virus in March 2020, our Public Health Department has taken a collaborative, not a heavy handed, approach in working with businesses to employ best practices to protect their employees from the virus. Our Public Health team has worked in tandem with our state partners, in particular Cal Osha, to ensure businesses were fully informed of what was required of them under the law.

Further, the statement continued, “Public Health welcomed the testing regimen employed by the local Foster Farms processing plant as a proactive approach in protecting its employees. Any allegation of collusion or abrogation of our duties under the law are absolutely false and grossly misrepresents our heroic efforts in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a written statement, Foster Farms told The Bee that when the county reviewed their COVID-19 mitigation plan, they were found to be “in adherence with county guidance.” With help from the county, Foster Farms has vaccinated 951 full-time employees at the plant to date and has a robust testing strategy, according to the statement.

Foster Farms receives a heads up on Cal/OSHA inspection

Workers arrive at the Foster Poultry Farms site at 900 W. Belgravia Ave., Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2020 in Fresno. Photo by Eric Zamora, The Fresno Bee
Workers arrive at the Foster Poultry Farms site at 900 W. Belgravia Ave., Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2020 in Fresno. Photo by Eric Zamora, The Fresno Bee

Foster Farms has two large chicken processing plants in Fresno, located on South Cherry Avenue in southeast Fresno and West Belgravia Avenue in southwest Fresno, at times employing over 1,000 employees each.

On Nov. 22, about 21 of 254 Cherry plant employees tested positive for COVID-19. Nine workers tested positive outside the plant, Foster Farms reported in an internal memo dated Dec. 5.

By Nov. 29, the company began testing all employees. About 220 of 1,000 employees were positive for the virus in one round of testing, and 58 of 652 employees had tested positive in another round, according to the same memo. It is unclear from the document whether anyone tested positive more than once.

In the same memo, the company reported the plant was shut down for a two-day deep cleaning and would continue twice-weekly testing on all employees.

Fuller, from the health department, showed up to Foster Farms’ Cherry plant facility for an unannounced inspection before the November outbreak on an unspecified date. He told The Bee he felt “very uncomfortable” during the visit.

Many of the executives and engineers he needed to talk to, he said, were not present, and those who were were “crowded in a small room.”

So when the county began getting calls about the outbreak in late November, Fuller gave the company a heads-up before conducting another inspection to observe safety precautions and make sure all the relevant people were present, he told The Bee.

In a Dec. 8 email, Fuller also notified Foster Farms that Cal/OSHA would be showing up at the 10 a.m. appointment the following day due to recent hospitalization reports.

Cal/OSHA public information officer Erika Monterroza told The Bee that the state agency was not aware the Fresno County Health Department had given advanced notice to the employer of the inspection.

She said that Cal/OSHA sometimes coordinates with local agencies ahead of inspections and said the cooperation comes “with the expectation that the coordinating agencies will keep that information confidential.”

Ana Padilla, executive director of the University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center, said giving advance notice of an inspection can jeopardize the integrity of an investigation, as companies have time to prepare and alter normal working conditions.

“They should not be giving them advanced notice,” Padilla said. “I was surprised to see that.”

However, the health department said Cal/OSHA representatives were aware of the advanced notice and said the agency could show up unannounced whenever they pleased. Fuller said the advanced notice was necessary, again, to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols with more visitors.

In his email, Fuller gave the phone number for the Cal/OSHA representative who informed him of their visit in case the company had “concerns” about the inspection.

“He did indicate that you should feel free to contact him if necessary,” Fuller wrote.

County tells Foster Farms they are not Cal/OSHA

In his heads-up, Fuller emphasized the county played a very different role than Cal/OSHA. He was there, he wrote, “to gain an understanding of the situation in the two plants and see if I might help identify any issues that could be contributing to the current outbreak.”

Fresno County Health Department Director David Pomaville told The Bee that Cal/OSHA and the state occupational health branch have more regulatory tools at their disposal. The county sees its own role as observatory, he said, hence the prior notice.

“Those two entities have more authority inside of the work environment,” he said. “There’s a huge resource allocation with regard to staff being able to go into the level of investigation we would like to.”

But extensive reporting on Cal/OSHA has shown the state regulatory agency is floundering. Understaffed, the majority of its inspections have been reduced to letters, CalMatters reported. A Sacramento Bee investigation showed that Cal/OSHA has also failed to track workplace inspections and deaths during the pandemic.

Cal/OSHA has opened several investigations into the Foster Farms Fresno facilities. The state has issued no fines to date.

Alice Berliner, director of the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health or SoCalCOSH, said while Cal/OSHA has powers beyond local health departments, the reverse is also true.

“The fact that a health department can close down a business is actually a pretty strong tool, and it’s so rarely used,” she said. “They also have the power to cite employers, and I rarely hear about that happening, either.

“If they’re just sitting back and trusting the employers are going to do that when some employers are breaking the law and doing their best to hide cases, my perspective is that they should definitely be using the tools they have,” she added.

County trusts data provided by Foster Farms

After his planned visit, Fuller wrote, “Thank you for your continued transparency and for the proactive testing approach that Foster Farms has taken. I have (no) doubt that those measure [sic] have been helpful.”

Not all counties have accepted the data provided by Foster Farms with open arms, however.

The Merced County Health Department, KQED reported in February, “repeatedly expressed skepticism about the outbreak information they were receiving from the poultry company, saying they believed the company hadn’t tested its entire workforce and was not providing reliable data.”

The company failed to notify the county of several hospitalizations and deaths as they occurred, KQED reported.

Pomaville told The Bee that the Fresno Public Health Department had no reason to doubt the data provided by the company because they knew the contractor that had performed the biweekly COVID-19 tests, a company called Color.

He said the county also receives testing data from the state, but the process is lengthy and convoluted and would not have allowed them to step in as quickly as the transparency provided by Foster Farms. Fuller said they fact-checked a portion of the data provided by Foster Farms against the state database.

In fact, Pomaville heralded Foster Farms’ testing strategy as a model for the rest of the county in an interview with The Bee. He said the company was testing and sharing that information at an exemplary clip before it was required.

In another email exchange, county officials asked Foster Farms whether it would be OK to share their testing plan with three smaller employers undergoing similar outbreaks. The identities of those employers were not made public, but Foster Farms executives were invited to participate in the call.

In their statement, Foster Farms officials said they have “been fully transparent in communicating Cherry testing protocols and positivity results with the Fresno Department of Health and in communicating any fatalities with the Fresno Department of Public Health and Cal OSHA.”

Fresno County keeps workplace outbreaks secret

During the outbreak, employees received little to no information and were forced to rely on media coverage, according to Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a nonprofit that advocates for the Sikh Punjabi community, many of whom are Foster Farms employees.

Reporting from early December showed at least 193 people had been infected.

Singh said he started receiving calls about positive COVID-19 tests in late November. By early January, he had attended multiple funerals.

“It was total disarray,” he said. “People were scared. People were worried.”

In emails, county officials twice told Foster Farms executives they were getting pressure from media outlets for more data. They asked that they share more information with media about the outbreak.

In response, Foster Farms Vice President of Communications Ira Brill said he wanted to see how events developed further before sharing more information, and would only speak “with members of media that are reasonable in their past coverage.”

“OK,” a public health official wrote back in a Dec. 7 email and asked for contact information to provide media.

In an early December exchange, Brill asked for a call to discuss media protocol. Simranjit Dhillon, a county public information officer, told him they have only been offering media outlets “a generic … type of response to most agencies but we can further discuss on the call.”

Pomaville said the correspondence regarding media coverage with Foster Farms was neither unprofessional nor atypical.

“We’ve done this with other situations where we’re trying to understand what’s going to be communicated, but I don’t view that as cozy,” he said. “We have independent decision-making and discretion.”

Choosing what to disclose and keep private has been one of the toughest parts of workplace outbreaks, Pomaville told The Bee. Ultimately, they have decided to withhold case numbers to build trust with employers, who have the most updated and reliable information on case counts and outbreaks.

“We believe it has allowed us to have better reporting to us by companies and to be able to work in closer partnership with them in investigating outbreaks,” he said.

Another reason they don’t find it necessary to publicize workplace outbreaks, Pomaville said, is an inability to trace contagion back to the job. He said many communities were experiencing high positivity rates during this time, too.

But advocates said they are tired of companies and public officials blaming community spread, especially among communities of color who spend most of their time in the workplace.

“They’ll pathologize low-income communities, they’ll pathologize cultures, but what ties a Punjabi worker in Fresno to a Haitian person infected on the East Coast?” Singh asked. “Oftentimes, it has been working in meat and poultry plants.”

Various studies have found that working in meat and poultry plants increase a person’s risk for COVID-19 exposure, especially among minorities.

Workers say they have nowhere to turn

Padilla wondered what the closeness displayed in the emails between a private company and the public health department meant for worker trust.

“We want workers to feel comfortable and safe to report non-compliance with employers, and if there’s a message that the employer is the most important ally, it could be a problem,” she said.

Pomaville said they had received input from workers throughout the outbreak, too, although he did not detail the extent of their role in the investigation.

Berliner, from SoCalCOSH said that workers making complaints have traditionally been excluded from both local and Cal/OSHA investigations. During investigations, for example, inspectors walk around with managers but rarely get a chance to build trust and hear from workers.

“They just are not trained to work collaboratively with workers,” she said. “It’s actually mind-blowing.”

Los Angeles County, on the other hand, has recently committed to working with labor organizations to strengthen workplace enforcement and recently passed an anti-retaliation ordinance.

The LA Department of Public Health is partnering with community-based organizations to train workers in several industries, like meat processing, to form public health councils. The councils then report working conditions inside the workplace to the county to ensure employer compliance with county orders and speed up response times when complaints arise, Berliner said.

In Fresno, Singh said, “most workers don’t even know who they can even turn to, period.”

A Punjabi Fresno resident echoed that sentiment. He asked not to be named because he feared retaliation for his multiple relatives who work at Foster Farms.

He said his relatives and their respective families fell ill during the December outbreak. Securing time off after five sick days for his elderly mother was impossible, he said, and he felt he was her only advocate.

Most frustrating, he said, was how the company made his family feel expendable.

“It felt as if they just wanted people to get sick and recover and come back,” he said. “Like, if 100 people get sick and 95 recover, we’ll just hire five more.”

This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Manuela Tobias

Manuela is a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering income inequality and economic survival for the California Divide. She is a former staff writer for PolitiFact, where she covered politics, health care...