By Susan Ferriss, Public Integrity
An industrial accident last year shook Gainesville, Georgia, the self-proclaimed “Chicken Capital of the World.” Six poultry-processing workers died when nitrogen gas used to freeze chicken leaked into a factory room and asphyxiated them.
Five of the six people killed were Mexican nationals — as were many survivors at the plant. Some were reluctant to accept medical aid or speak to federal investigators.
Their hesitation wasn’t unusual, labor advocates say.
Gainesville, the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2020, is one of many U.S. communities where immigrants are the backbone of essential food production. The pandemic sickened and killed poultry workers in Gainesville. The 2021 accident, which investigators found was preventable, is fueling demands for labor officials to do more to support immigrants who fear retaliation if they report safety and wage violations.
Even if workers are not themselves undocumented, members of their family or co-workers might be. Fear that employers will call immigration authorities can deter workers from trusting that they won’t suffer consequences by complaining.
To address that, advocates are urging Labor and Homeland Security officials to work together more often to grant temporary protection from deportation to undocumented workers who cooperate with investigators. Temporary work permits would also help ensure workers won’t fear losing livelihoods if they speak up, advocates say.
If undocumented workers are victims of crimes, officials could also help by more often obtaining residency visas for those who cooperate with investigations, said Shelly Anand, a former Labor Department attorney with Sur Legal Collaborative, a group that represents immigrant workers.
The evening of the Gainesville accident, the collaborative helped set up a Facebook presentation explaining workers’ rights and how a Labor Department investigation would unfold. The event drew 9,000 views. Lawyers later met with survivors.
“A lot of workers that we met were women,” Anand said. “They were having issues with their lungs and headaches and PTSD. Some would say they would close their eyes, and they could still hear the screaming and see their dead co-workers.”
With legal representation, Anand said, workers were more comfortable speaking with investigators. Six months after the accident, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed nearly $600,000 in penalties against Foundation Food Group, which ran the factory, for 26 violations the agency said it found there. OSHA also fined three other businesses a total of about $400,000.
The businesses, OSHA said, “failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak, or to equip workers responding to it with the knowledge and equipment that could have saved their lives.”
Foundation Food did not respond to requests for comment but said in earlier statements that it took no actions to intimidate employees and considered aspects of the OSHA citations “unjustified and unsupported by the facts.” The company and two of the other cited businesses appealed last year.
Last year, as part of a series called “Cheated at Work,” Public Integrity investigated immigrant workers’ vulnerability to wage theft and to retaliation. The story reported that in August 2021, labor officials obtained a court order to stop a New York business owner from allegedly threatening to call immigration officials if employees cooperated with a wage-violation investigation.
Another “Cheated at Work” story, released this week, focused on low-wage foreign workers with seasonal work visas that tie them to one employer. If they walk off a job, workers lose their visas.
A seasonal crawfish worker in Louisiana attempted to persuade OSHA in 2020 that she left her job, temporarily, to seek medical care because she was ill with COVID-19. She said she feared receiving inadequate medical care if confined to quarantine housing.
In the end, OSHA said it found “insufficient evidence” that she was unfairly fired. Labor wage investigators, however, subsequently found that the guest workers and 99 others at the company had been shortchanged on overtime pay in 2020.